Matt Driscoll

He’s big, he drools, he steals the show. Westminster dog a hit at Pierce County libraries

“Read to a Dog” program gets a boost from big supporter

Westminster show dog Bruce the Saint Bernard gives kids a soft spot to work on their reading skills.
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Westminster show dog Bruce the Saint Bernard gives kids a soft spot to work on their reading skills.

Bruce, as he’s accustomed to, was the center of attention.

At 170 pounds, and nearly 5-feet seven inches tall on his hind legs, the massive St. Bernard — named after Batman alter ego Bruce Wayne — regularly finds himself in this role.

Often it’s in the show ring, like at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where Bruce took home the “select dog” honor — essentially second place — in the St. Bernard breed last month.

Other times, it’s out and about, like on his recent trip to New York, when his sheer, awe-inspiring size led him to be routinely mobbed “like a rock star,” according to his owner, Kristen Scott of Puyallup.

And sometimes, it’s at the library, of all places.

That was the case at the Parkland-Spanaway branch Thursday night when children and parents got up close and personal with Bruce. The young ones climbed all over him like the “big old teddy bear” he is, in the words of youth services librarian Lauren Lindskog.

As welcome as the affection is, Bruce was there with a purpose. He’s a working dog, after all, despite his penchant for drooling and lying down on the job.

For the last six months — at least when he’s not on the road traveling up and down the Interstate 5 corridor to dog shows or across the country to Westminster — Bruce has been one of the most popular attractions of the Pierce County Library System’s Read to a Dog program.

He’s certainly been the biggest.

“He’s pretty chill. He’s got to sit there and take it. He doesn’t mind the kids touching him. He doesn’t mind the kids playing on him a little bit, and that’s kind of what a dog needs to be able to take,” Lindskog explained of the job requirements and what makes Bruce a perfect fit for the program.

“I think his soulful eyes are a good thing, too,” she added.

The library systems Read to a Dog program launched more than a decade ago, though back then it was held at only one location and known as “Reading is Doggone Fun” (get it?). Today, Read to a Dog events — which employ service and therapy dogs of various breeds — are regularly held at libraries throughout the 18-branch system, with more coming soon. The program is being expanded as part of Pierce County Library’s 2019 “A Year of Reading” initiative.

Besides the obvious cuteness factor, the idea behind the Read to a Dog program is straightforward. Lindskog says a chance for children to read to a dog in “a non-judgmental atmosphere” helps build skill and confidence in young readers.

“The dog is not there for any other purpose than to sit and listen. So it’s a kind of silent ear for the child to read to, and some children really respond to that,” Lindskog said. “

“We’re building early literacy. We’re building those confidence skills and fluency skills. The ability to read with fluency is a big deal for children, particularly that are just starting to read,” Lindskog added. “So this is a big benefit for kindergartners, first graders, second graders and even those older kids who are trying to figure out how to read a chapter book out loud.”

For Bruce, the appeal seems equally straightforward. He lies around, gets petted and has a chance to interact with humans of all shapes and sizes (though many are much smaller than he is).

It’s a far cry from the rigors of his day job. Having competed since he was 4-months old, the now 6-year-old St. Bernard has been a hardworking, highly decorated show dog for nearly his entire life.

Scott — who owns three other St. Bernards — says she participates in about 40 dog shows a year, filling up her weekends and most of her spare time. In addition to competitions, there are hours of training and obedience work each week.

Bruce has also participated in weight-pulling competitions, once tugging more than 3,000 pounds more than 16 feet in under a minute.

This year was the first time Bruce competed at Westminster, though it was his third invitation to the renowned event.

To get an invite, a dog has to be ranked nationally in the top five in its breed. Bruce came into the competition ranked second.

Scott says it was a stressful, “crazy” experience — book-ended by 6½ hour flights, which cost $1000 each way just for Bruce — at least until she stepped into the ring with Bruce.

“In the ring nothing matters except you and your dog. It doesn’t matter what’s going on at home or what’s going on at work. It’s just you and your dog,” said Scott, who grew up in a family that raised Australian Shepherds and got her first St. Bernard at 15.

“To me, that’s why I love it,” she continued. “I can forget everything else, and just be with my dog.”

Asked if she thought Bruce should have won Best in Breed, Scott offered a bit of side eye and said simply, “There’s a lot of politics involved.”

She also said this year might be Bruce’s last in competition, suggesting that he’s had a good run and retirement and a “nice, cozy couch life” might be in his near future.

On Thursday night, competition seemed far from Scott’s mind. She was just happy to be sharing Bruce with children and parents who appreciated him.

“I always wanted a St. Bernard as a kid, so I said when I got my own I was going share him with the world,” Scott said.

“I love it.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.