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Therapy dogs offer a helping paw to young and old

With her soft brown eyes looking on with encouragement, Solange patiently listens to a third-grader read his book. The next day she will listen to an elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease reminiscing about a school dance in 1942.

She never judges and always listens.

Solange is a 3-year-old German ahepard, but more importantly she's a therapy dog who helps children become better readers and gives the sick and elderly a reliable companion.

If you ask her owner, RenEe Lampila, a retired nursing home administrator of 27 years, Solange isn't just a therapy dog, she's a member of her family and a valued member of the medical and academic communities. Solange works at the Blue Creek Elementary School and Gilda's Club in Latham and The Springs Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Troy.

She usually leaves the driving to Lampila, though.

Solange and Lampila sat down with The Spotlight at their Delmar home to walk through a typical day of their volunteer work.

We really have the greatest job in the world, Lampila said. "We make reading fun."

Lampila still does some part-time work as a nursing-home consultant but now dedicates much of her time as a volunteer " and Solange's chauffeur " to area organizations in order to do what they do best: listen.

"I've always noticed the relationship the residents had with dogs, and that it was completely non-judgmental to their disability," Lampila said of Solange's calming effect. "What does a therapy dog do? The bottom line is they make a house a home."

Although Lampila's background is in working with the elderly, she said, "We realized Solange was more aligned with working with children. Therapy dogs are born, they're not made."

Solange does have her working papers, however. She was certified by Therapy Dogs International in October of 2008 as part of its children reading to dogs program called "Trail Waggin' Tutors." She listens to third- and forth-graders read books at the Blue Creek school in an effort to make the children more comfortable reading and to simply make leisurely reading fun and exciting for the kids.

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