The tiny black-and-brown dog rolled on its side, lifting her paws up and welcoming the gentle petting from the child sitting across from her.

Dulce, an 8-year-old chihuahua, settled into the blanket and listened to the story being read. Her owner, Natalie Hinton-Jennings, sat next to her.

There was none of the yipping or nervous energy chihuahua’s are known to display. All was calm.

“We call her ‘the anti-chihuahua,'” Hinton-Jennings said. “She’s very laid-back, very smart. She’s the Garfield of dogs — happy when it’s mealtime and naptime.”

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Every month, Hinton-Jennings and Dulce come to the Clark Pleasant branch of the Johnson County Public Library to help children with their reading. The Woofs and Books program uses the soothing nature of petting and playing with a dog to increase focus, making reading enjoyable and easier.

“We’ve found that it really helps to encourage literacy being with the animals,” Hinton-Jennings said. “We want to encourage the love of reading, or if kids are struggling, giving them a non-judgmental audience to read to a dog.”

For volunteering their time, Hinton-Jennings and Dulce were chosen to help represent Johnson County on Friday in the Indiana Bicentennial torch relay.

Her husband, Tony Jennings, had nominated her in secret, so when she received the notice from the state bicentennial commission declaring her a torchbearer, she was shocked.

“My first thought was, ‘What did I mess up?’ I thought it was a bill. But I opened it up, and saw what it is,” she said.

Woofs and Books is a nonprofit group that promotes literacy by connecting kids with service dogs, as well as operating an animal rescue facility in Noblesville. Volunteers work in libraries, schools and at public events to build a bond between kids and reading.

“A lot of the schools use it as a reward. If the kids don’t behave that week or do what they’re supposed to, they don’t get their doggie time,” Hinton-Jennings said.

Hinton-Jennings became involved with the program three years ago. Her cousin was a Woof and Books volunteer on the northside of Indianapolis.

“It sounded like something I really wanted to be involved with, and asked if they had anything like it on the southside,” she said.

Initially, there was an obstacle to her participation. When Hinton-Jennings told organizers that Dulce was a chihuahua, they were skeptical that she would have the temperament to be a reading dog.

But when they met Dulce, her friendly demeanor won them over.

Before they could start with the program, Hinton-Jennings and Dulce went through evaluations with experienced dog trainers, then came to sit in for a Woof and Books session at the library.

By the middle of the hour-long reading time, Dulce was already meeting with the kids.

“The woman who was running the program saw that she was behaved, did well around children and loud noises, and didn’t get aggressive,” Hinton-Jennings said.

Since that time, they’ve been monthly regulars at the library. Each session has a different theme between the two — the most recent being a football-related outfit, where Hinton-Jennings wore her Colts jersey and Dulce dressed as a cheerleader.

“We like to have fun with it,” Hinton-Jennings said.

In addition to the regular session at the Clark Pleasant library, Hinton-Jennings and Dulce have gotten involved in other community events around Johnson County, such as Doggy Pool Day at the Franklin Aquatic Center earlier this month.

Dulce’s talents have also been put to work soothing troubled kids. She and Hinton-Jennings were invited to a northside Indianapolis elementary school earlier in the year when one of its students died unexpectedly.

“They reached out to us, and asked if anyone who had dogs would come in,” Hinton-Jennings said. “We went into the classroom of the young boy who passed away, and the kids got to be with the dog to help with their grief.”

For Hinton-Jennings, being able to represent the county is an exciting opportunity. When she walks the bicentennial torch along her quarter-mile leg through downtown Franklin, it’ll be a chance not only to celebrate 200 years of Indiana history, but to cast a spotlight on Woof and Books as well.

“It’s incredibly humbling, and something my family and I are proud of,” she said. “If we can get some attention to our little organization, all the better.”

If you go

Johnson County Bicentennial Festival

When: 5 to 10 p.m. Friday

Where: Downtown Franklin

What: In recognition of the state’s bicentennial torch relay reaching the county, local officials have organized a community-wide party.

Features:

  • An appearance by the Indiana Bicentennial Experience, a traveling interactive historical display
  • Historical booths representing the county, different towns and cities, the county library and Johnson Memorial Health
  • A beer and wine garden
  • Food vendors
  • Classic car show
  • Music by the Franklin Community Band and Tastes Like Chicken

Cost: Free

At a glance

Cheer on the torchbearers

To welcome the state bicentennial torch as it arrives in Johnson County, local residents are invited to line the streets along the route.

The following streets will be part of the route:

  • Jefferson Street, from State Road 44 to Drake Road
  • Drake Road
  • Hospital Drive to U.S. 31
  • South Street to Home Avenue
  • Home Avenue to Monroe Street
  • Monroe Street into downtown Franklin

The torch is expected to arrive in the county around 4 p.m., and reach downtown by about 5:15 p.m.

Get all the details: See our special bicentennial feature inside Friday’s Daily Journal

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.