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Tori sits with a student while they read last May at Red Cottage Montessori School in Red Wing.

To young students struggling to read, Tori has offered a patient ear.

The thought of fumbling through words in front of classmates and teachers can be daunting, but the 10-year-old golden retriever listens, without judgment, as students hone their skills. He and his owner, Jane Ward, have been visiting Minnesota schools for years and have watched more than one student progress from stumbling over words to reading an entire book.

"Tori will listen to anything," Ward said. And that's the best part, because it helps students build the confidence to take those reading skills back to the classroom.

On Thursday, Ward received a national literacy award from the Daughters of the American Revolution for the service she and Tori have provided through the years. It's the first such national award that anyone from Rochester has received, DAR leaders said at the Thursday morning ceremony.

"They are both so deserved," said Kai Rodgers, the head of school at Red Cottage Montessori in Red Wing, where the duo volunteered for six years.

But the celebration was a bittersweet one for Ward. She's unsure how much time Tori has left, after a cancer diagnosis 9 months ago.

That's when Ward first noticed a tumor on the dog's tongue. A veterinarian removed the growth, but found the surrounding cells were also cancerous and advised removing Tori's entire tongue; the vet noted said that treatment with chemotherapy or radiation would likely kill the dog before the cancer would.

Ward opted out of aggressive treatment and instead put Tori on cancer-fighting drugs, in hopes the dog would live the rest of his life in as normal a way as possible.

A change of purpose

Ward got Tori when he was 8 weeks old, but she never intended to keep him.

She began training him as a service dog, one of many she's trained through the years.

Typically, after two years of training, the dog is placed with a person in need. But Tori was pulled from the program because of his skin allergies. He'd have been "too expensive" and burdensome as a service dog, requiring shots and special baths, Ward said.

So, instead, she kept him and put all that training to use. She found Tori a new purpose with the Minnesota READ, or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, program. Ward also got Tori certified as a therapy dog.

"He's a two-career dog, as well as being a pet," she said.

At first, Ward was "disappointed" that he wouldn't be making his way to someone in need.

"When you're a service dog trainer, you cry when the dogs leave and that's inevitable," she said. But, she added, "if I can give somebody a best friend and make their life easier, why wouldn't I do that? So I go through the tears and go have a glass of wine with my friends and apply for another dog."

Learning to read

During each school visit, Ward sets down a quilt that Tori and the student climb onto.

Then begins the work. With the dog as the audience, and Ward listening in, the students start to read. Ward chimes in every now and then, "speaking for Tori," not correcting, but suggesting and asking questions for the dog.

"Tori can ask questions, but I can't correct them, or that would make me a teacher — and that's why the program works," she said. "I'm there and I talk for him."

Tori nuzzles and cuddles, but mostly just looks on patiently as students work their way through stories.

Sometimes, it takes an entire year for students to open up, but Tori calms any anxieties. Eventually, students grow comfortable with reading and Tori begins working with the next group.

Through the years, Ward has solicited donations from her church, Kiwanis clubs and other organizations to reward students for their progress, sending them home with free books — each "signed' by Tori with a stamp of his paw print.

"If you've ever watched kids improve on something, it's so worth it," Ward said. "If a kid can't read, they're just not going to get anywhere. So to watch this happen is just amazing."

​Have some local education news you'd like to share? Contact Taylor at 507.285.7615, or by email at tnachtigal@postbulletin.com

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