K9 visitor brings love and encouragement to young readers 

By Laurie O’Neill  Correspondent
January 14, 2024

Samantha loves being read to. The three-year-old doesn’t care if the book is about a monkey or a moose, a squirrel or a squid. She will listen attentively, sitting at your feet, her big brown eyes fixed on your face.  

She might even extend a paw for you to shake or lay her head on your lap.  

Samantha is a Golden Retriever, and she and her owner, Anthony Ullo, volunteer for the Pets & People Foundation, a non-profit that coordinates visits by teams of owners and pets to libraries, nursing and assisted living homes and schools.  

Ullo and Samantha — who is impeccably groomed and wears a red Pets & People bandanna around her neck when working — visit the Fowler Branch Library in West Concord for an hour each month so youngsters can read aloud to her. Some get right down on the floor, cooing at Samantha and petting her silky coat, while a few might sit a bit farther away at first.  

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ian Abelowitz, 7, and his brother Levi, 2, of West Concord, arrived with their nanny, Paulina. Both carried books.  

Ian suddenly turned shy while Levi, apparently deciding Samantha needed to be serenaded instead of read to, merrily warbled the children’s Chanukah song “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” on repeat while bouncing around the room. Samantha calmly looked on, sometimes lying down and placing her head on her paws or looking up at Ullo, seemingly for advice.  

Next came Clara Dobrinski, 6, of Belmont, with her mom, Andrea Segar. Clara was one of the many repeat guests Samantha and Andrew have welcomed. She chose to sit closer to Samantha this time, Ullo said, and then, her excitement palpable, she read “Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho!” by Doreen Cronin, a story about Farmer Brown and his mischievous barnyard duck getting ready for Christmas.  

Clara read the book not just once, but twice, turning to grin at her mom from time to time and flipping the book around to show Samantha the illustrations.  

The third reader was Zane Engberg, 9, of West Concord, accompanied by his dad, Nick Brown. Zane read Samantha the story of Twitch, a very smart squirrel (“Squirrel in the Museum” by Vivian Vande Velde), who stows away on a school bus to go on a field trip with a group of children.  

As he grew more comfortable and confident, Zane slid down the side of the ottoman on which he had been sitting, his long legs stretched out. Samantha rarely took her eyes off him. At one point, the boy rested his hand on her head.   

Research shows interacting with a gentle dog or cat can ease shyness or sadness and provide comfort. Reading to a dog is a great way to build self-confidence and public speaking skills and can improve the way children feel about reading. Part of the reason only one child at a time spends time with Samantha or other Pets & People animals is to allow each to read aloud without the judgement of others — something a child may experience in a classroom environment.  

Pets & People, for which Martha McCown is the director of volunteers, has nearly 100 teams in Eastern Massachusetts, including four cat-and-owner pairs. There is no charge for the visits they make. The forty-year-old foundation depends entirely on donations. 

Ullo, who works in finance in Boston, lives in Acton with his wife, Erica, a laboratory manager in the Infectious Disease Diagnostic Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital. The couple has an eight-month-old son, Christopher, whom they call C.J.  

Samantha joined the couple as a puppy when they resided in Boston. Right from the start, she was “comfortable and approachable when around lots of people, calm and gentle, quiet and extremely well-behaved,” said Ullo.  

Goldens can be “silly dogs,” he added, “but they are smart and great with kids.”  

Ullo soon began thinking about taking part in a volunteer pet therapy program and started Samantha’s training right away. She earned an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Award, excelling at a 10-skill test that teaches good manners to dogs and responsible dog ownership to their owners. Samantha and Ullo became involved with Pets & People last spring.  

Each team must be certified in exemplary handling and temperament by a Pets & People evaluator. The foundation carries liability insurance for each team.  

Samantha and Ullo also visit the Life Care Center in Acton, a nursing home where they go from room to room visiting residents. The Golden’s devotion to her owner is obvious as she gazes at him adoringly and sticks close to his side, and the feeling is mutual. Ullo is clearly protective of Samantha and often provides a reassuring pat and a whispered word of encouragement.  

Though he is busy with work and being a new dad, “I make the time to do this, as it’s important,” Ullo said of volunteering. “Some children won’t read the first time they visit,” he noted, “but when they keep coming back, I see a huge transformation. If we can make these kids smile, it’s worth it.”  

For more information about reading to Samantha at Fowler stop in or call (978)- 318-3300. 

Children, who must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, first choose a book and sign up at the front desk. No advance reservations are required.