COVINGTON, Ga. - South Salem Elementary School's therapy dog, Booker the Pug, will make his Big Apple debut as part of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Monday.
Booker is in his second year as a Therapy Dog International-certified therapy dog in the SSES media center alongside Media Specialist Meghen Bassel.
"He began as a reading therapy dog to offer additional support to students who needed some more work with reading," Bassel said. "Through that, he offers a non-judgemental being to simply listen to them so they're not afraid to make sounds or attempt words. They're not going to be corrected by him. He just sits there and gives them a little confidence."
Bassel said Booker got his start at the school through her. As a former software engineer, she was looking for a more rewarding career.
"I show dogs and I breed dogs - a different breed - so I knew they could really have a positive influence on the lives of children," she said.
Some of the dogs Bassel had bred went on to become reading therapy dogs and that sparked her interest and started her research.
"When I started talking to other media specialists, they noted 'Gosh, we love when they're here, but we need them more,'" she said. "So, it's hard to have an outside person donate that amount of time - like a daily or bi-weekly visit is a lot to ask of a person. Then I began the plan to just get our own and that way he is at our disposal all the time."
Bassel said the administration at the school and system level were very supportive in the program.
"It took a long time to find the right dog," she said. "I needed a dog where I knew their complete history - I knew where they were born and that every experience they had with people was positive."
Booker was donated by a breeder in Ohio to the program when he was 1-year-old.
"I knew I wanted a pug because they have been bred for thousands of years to have a very tolerant temperament," she said. "They're sturdy, they're small - so I can pick him up if I need to take him out for fire drills or anything - and they're non-threatening."
The 3-year-old pug has branched out to become more than just a reading therapy dog. He is used for a student reward system, a calming method and a stress reliever.
Outside of his work at the school, Booker also visits nursing homes over the summer to continue his training.
As a working dog, Bassel said dog shows come easy for Booker.
"Literally, all they have to do is walk in the room, walk on a leash and stand and look cute," she said.
Booker will compete in the conformation part of the Westminster show - where he will be judged on how good of a pug he is compared to other dogs of the same breed.
"The way dog shows work, he is going to compete against other pugs and the judges are going to say 'This is the best pug in the ring today,' and that pug will go on and be in the Toy Group," she said.
Booker has previously won a show championship, which qualified him for the show.
He will compete in Ring 1 at 8 a.m. Monday, which can be live-streamed online at www.westminsterkennelclub.org/.
"Being at Westminster is kind of like being at the Super Bowl," Bassel said. "You may not win, but it is a big deal to even be there."