GREENFIELD — A light brown curly-haired puppy wiggled in Steve Fox’s lap.
The 2-year-old laughed nonstop as the puppy licked his face and rolled on its back before wriggling out of his grip.
“Puppy tried to get away!” the toddler exclaimed to his mom.
Story continues below gallery
The dozen Australian labradoodle puppies that paid a recent visit to the Hancock County Public Library delighted employees and patrons; all the while, experts nearby watched their interactions with interest. For these pups, playtime — and how they handle it — can determine their future as a therapy animal.
In recent months, the library has partnered with area breeders and trainers to provide a safe environment to test dogs’ temperament as a therapy or service animal.
Meadow Park Labradoodles of Williamsburg, which breeds the dogs, and Ultimate Canine of Westfield, which specializes in training service dogs, have partnered to bring the animals to Greenfield, setting up a temporary pen in the children’s department.
Meadow Park raises the dogs from birth to 8 weeks, and then evaluates each animal’s behavior — whether they’re comfortable around people, calm or rambunctious — to separate pets from those with a future in service. Ultimate Canine then takes over the training process; its dogs have gone to help people with autism, seizure disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome and others, said Jessica Benz, a trainer for Ultimate Canine.
The animals have also served people in nursing homes and hospitals, she added.
Identifying the best candidates for service involves putting the dogs in the hands of all kinds of people — old and young, those who love dogs and those who aren’t sure yet. At the library, the trainers have access to all of the above.
Employees at Meadow Park, which breeds the allergy-friendly dogs near Richmond, contacted the library about bringing a recently born litter of puppies. In addition to the dozen or so puppies, Benz also brought a slightly older mini labradoodle that will soon work with veterans in Utah. Ginger, the wavy-haired dog dressed in a vest declaring her future role, doled out kisses and asked for belly rubs in equal measure.
Library officials did not hesitate to welcome the furry friends for a visit, said youth services director Cathy Riley. The library’s youngest patrons are always drawn toward animals, which have found their way into a number of the library’s educational programs.
“This is pure fun,” Riley said. “We’ll have a lot of kids checking out dog books after this.”
News of the huggable canines’ arrival last week spread quickly through the stacks and departments of the library, drawing kids, adults and staff members to coo at and cuddle the fluffy tan- and buff-colored puppies.
The socialization goes both ways, Riley said.
Meeting the small puppies at the library provides a safe environment for children who might be shy around dogs, Riley said.
Staff members at the library hope the businesses will bring labradoodle puppies to the children’s department about once a month for socialization — and for toddlers and kids to get to know dogs in a low-stress situation. As long as there are litters of puppies to train, Benz said Ultimate Canine is happy to make the trip.
This month’s visit marked the second time the hypo-allergenic, non-shedding puppies joined the children’s department, said assistant director Barb Roark. She said the library gets calls from time to time asking if breeders and trainers can bring their dogs for socialization. The library’s partnership with Meadow Park and Ultimate Canine marks a more formal arrangement.
Holding an utterly relaxed brown-and-white pup, Roark had no qualms about inviting local youngsters to join her.
“It’s just one more way to learn,” she said.