Dozens of outstretched hands tried to scoop Henri, a Great Pyrenees, into a hug, patting his long tufts of fur, none of which fazed the large white dog, who sat patiently, accepting the attention as he listened attentively to the young voices reading to him about a dog, who like Henri, finds a home of his own.
Henri and his owner, Deborah Clothier, visit classrooms in the Acadiana area several times a month to encourage children to read and to teach lessons about animal adoption and how to properly treat animals.
“We want to educate our children and break this cycle that we have of cruelty in this area,” Clothier said. “We tell them about Henri and his story and talk about what they can do in their community.”
Clothier was inspired to start a literacy program after she and a friend spent a vacation volunteering with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the country’s largest no-kill sanctuary for animals in Kanab, Utah.
A few years later, she started the program in Acadiana, bringing Henri to classrooms on her own. About two years ago, she began offering the program in partnership with Lafayette Animal Aid, a local no-kill shelter where she volunteers.
Henri is a trained therapy dog who is part of the national organization Pets for Health. This spring, the duo will have visited hundreds of children, Clothier said. The two also visit nursing homes and hospitals.
In May, Clothier and Henri visited second-grade classes at Myrtle Place Elementary School. Clothier told the children how she found Henri on a road near her home in Acadiana. It appeared that he had been abandoned and that he hadn’t eaten in days. He had a skin disease and weighed about 35 pounds, nearly half his current weight. She took Henri to a vet and cared for him as he recuperated.
“It took Henri about a year to recover,” Clothier told the second-graders.
When he was well, she found him a good home. But one day, Henri got out of his backyard, and his new owners couldn’t find him. Three days later, Clothier opened her garage door and Henri was there, waiting for her. The Great Pyrenees had crossed two highways and traveled about 15 miles to find her, but Henri did it. Henri’s owners decided it was best for him to stay where he wanted to be — with Clothier.
“I’m convinced that love is very strong and that power enabled him to find his way back to me,” she told the class.
During the visit, she read the children the book “Before You Were Mine.” The picture book tells the story of a little boy who asks his dog questions about what his life may have been like before he was adopted by the boy. The child wonders if his old owner kept him on a chain or got mad when he made a mess, not understanding that he was only a puppy.
Clothier explained the work of the animal shelter and how she and Henri often care for puppies who have been abandoned.
“Do y’all know how you can be a good citizen?” she asked the students. “If you see a dog or cat being neglected or abused, you can tell an adult.”
Even though they may not have any animals, there are ways that they can help care for them, Clothier said.
“There are things that kids can do,” she said later. “They can help an elderly neighbor feed or walk their dog or help a friend clean out his hamster’s cage.”
After Clothier read the book, the students took turns reading a page to Henri. Some scooted closer to him, reading directly to the dog. Over the years, Clothier said, she’s seen many struggling readers encouraged by reading to Henri.
“He’s not judging them. They want to read,” she said.
At the end of the visit, each child received a “Good Citizen” certificate from Raising Cane’s and a coupon for a free meal in support of the literacy program. The students also received a small stuffed dog, which Clothier encouraged students to read to at home.
“You promise you’ll read to your dog?” she asked them.
The response was unanimous.
The outreach is rewarding, Clothier said.
“I hope it teaches them empathy and to realize that animals feel pain,” she said. “They get really hungry, and it goes on all around us. I think if we raise that level, they’ll be aware that it’s not OK.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter @Marsha_Sills.