With her sweet disposition, non-judgmental nature, and calming influence, Myrtle has quickly become the most popular girl at the Kearsarge Regional Elementary School.
When she struts through the front door, students run over just to say hi. And those lucky enough to spend some one-on-one time with her are ecstatic.
“She’s become a celebrity,’ said School Counselor Taylor Fluery.
Myrtle is not your average student, and not really a student at all, but a 7-year-old therapy dog owned by New London resident Carrie Bouton. Bouton volunteers with Myrtle, a cross between a Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever, at the K-5 school once a week to read with students and take part in the counseling curriculum that Fluery teaches.
Each grade has eight weeks for one student from every class to read with Myrtle for 15 minutes in the guidance office. The same student meets with Myrtle for an eight-week session; however, other students interact with her during the guidance classes.
Students are nominated to practice their literacy skills with Myrtle and for some special time with her. The school selects students who may be struggling with confidence or dealing with difficult life experiences.
“Every student here has a background, and we try to see who would benefit most from the experience,” Fluery said. “We select students who could use a boost and who may not necessarily be picked for other things.”
Fluery said the students willingly read to Myrtle and aren’t embarrassed when they make mistakes.
“Myrtle is a very patient audience and the bond the children form with her is heartwarming,” she said. “We’ve seen kids with trauma backgrounds that feel safe with Myrtle and that’s special to see.”
Mikey Brownell, a fifth grader, reads regularly with Myrtle and has developed a strong relationship with her. Mikey told Fluery that he feels “really happy’’ when he reads to Myrtle, and she listens. Mikey and Myrtle’s favorite books so far this school year are “Santa’s New Jet” and “Nine Ghosts.”
If students finish their book early, they give Myrtle a treat or snuggle up together.
“It’s not just about reading,” Fluery said. “It’s evolved into a TLC thing.’’
Principal Kelly Collins said the opportunity to provide a safe space for students to decompress in a non-judgmental environment is the most important outcome of the partnership with Myrtle and Bouton.
“Comfort dogs bring this joy and comfort to students who are dealing with so many outside things that they try to turn off at school,’ she said. “The dogs help them feel safe, comfortable and loved.’’
Myrtle also visits classrooms. Beginning this school year, she helps with school counseling lessons. Fluery shares topics ahead of time with Myrtle’s owner so they can coordinate lessons.
In kindergarten, for example, they will read a story about how animals have feelings, show unconditional love and can help with coping strategies. The students then have a chance to pet Myrtle and talk about how it makes them feel.
For the older students, they talk more in depth about how the interaction between humans and animals can lower stress hormones.
Myrtle even shows off her own reading skills. Bouton has cards that show commands like “sit.’’ Bouton or a student will hold up the card and without any verbal cues, Myrtle will read the card and follow the command.
“The kids are mesmerized,” Fluery said.
Bouton also passes out bookmarks with Myrtle’s face on them.
At the end of the year, all students who read with Myrtle get together one last time.
Last year, the group went for a walk, had treats and gave Myrtle special gifts.
“This provided a sense of closure, but also celebrated the great work students and Myrtle did together,” Fluery said.
This is Myrtle’s second year working KRES. Bouton’s dog Valley, a yellow male Retriever cross, visited the school regularly for 10 years under he passed in 2021.
Bouton raised both dogs as a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions, an organization that provides service dogs at no charge to people with disabilities. Both dogs were released from the program during advanced training and returned to Bouton as pets.
“I believe the dogs’ purposeful backgrounds and early training are best put to use through the therapy work I’ve pursued,” she said.
Bouton said she’s enjoyed sharing Myrtle with schools and hospitals – an experience that has enriched her own life.
“As I volunteer in local spaces with the dog, I find it very meaningful to learn about the many rich resources in my own community and to meet interesting new people every week,’ she said. “Myrtle seems to have quite a local fan club. Whether we’re in the area’s hospitals or neighborhood school, she brings comfort and love and leaves a trail of smiles.’’
Collins is grateful that Bouton and Myrtle are willing to visit the school and commended Fluery for working with the duo.
“There is something about connecting with an animal that gets us through a tough situation and that’s for adults, too,’ Collins said. “We’re seeing a lot of heavy things that kids are carrying and this is a small moment of time when it can be alleviated.’’