Roxy Todd Published

Therapy Dog Helps Encourage Charleston School Children to Read


Paca is an English Black Labrador who works with elementary school students at the Mary C. Snow School on Charleston’s West Side.

One of Paca’s roles is to help children who are emotionally in need of some extra love.

“Our population of students are 84% free and reduced lunch, so we have the highest poverty rate in Kanawha County,” said Assistant Principal Jordan McBride.

McBride explains that Paca the dog is actually used in the school to help children who are going through some very stressful situations at home.

“Our students experience a lot of trauma. Paca kind of comes in with that, that she is used as our therapy dog for students that are in need.”

Paca was trained by prison inmates at a state prison in Ellsworth, Kansas.

After her training there, Paca came to West Virginia in 2011 to work at the Mary C. Snow school when it first opened.

The money to pay for Paca’s training came from donations raised by the school’s librarian, Debbie Cannada. Cannada traveled to Kansas to adopt Paca and to receive her own handler training.

“When we come through the door in the morning, her tail is wagging, her eyes are bright. She’s the most excited to be here of anybody on the staff,” said Cannada.

Paca usually senses whenever a child has been going through a difficult time and is in need of some special attention. “We have children who talk to her. We’ve got one little boy that will lift her ear up like a flap, and he’ll just whisper and talk to her. For him, she is a completely objective, non judgmental, listening ear. Where he can say anything he needs to say.”

Ms. Cannada says that little bit of Paca love often goes a long way to calm a student down.

“I saw her step between two children who were…..angry with each other. And she basically nosed in between them. You know, wiggled her body in between them. And the act of her wiggling her body between them made them giggle. Cause she looked funny trying to get between them, and it de-escalated the situation instantly. They both just started petting her and laughing about how she looked so silly trying to get between them.”

Paca spends most of her working day in the library, but she also travels around the school to other classrooms for story-time.

Cindy Shuman teaches third grade, and Paca is a regular reading companion for this classroom. Today the children are taking turns reading to Paca, who occasionally lays her head in their lap or puts her paw on their leg.

Paca also works one on one with students who are struggling with reading. Children are invited to come to the library to visit Paca to read to her, to talk to her, to pet her.

“And she always answers it with a kiss, a big wet sloppy kiss, and they think that’s just the best thing ever,” said Cannada.

In part two of this story, we’ll go inside one of the West Virginia prisons where service dogs like Paca are trained by inmates.

In part three of this story, we’ll meet a service dog that helps an 11-year-old boy with special needs.