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Books Have Become His Natural Habitat

SANTA FE, N.M. — Some of us spend a lifetime trying to decide what we’ll be when we grow up, but Seymour knows his purpose in life already, even though he’ll be only 3 years old on May 1.

His purpose is to lie down next to someone and be still, letting his chosen companion stroke or pet him while the human reads. If Seymour can occasionally wiggle himself into an impromptu belly rub, so much the better. That’s the black Labrador’s favorite treat.

Seymour is a certified “facility dog,” employed — and that’s the right word — as the official library dog at the Meem Library at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He’s been on the job since November and unlike the more-famous library dog at Yale University Library, there was no three-day-trial nonsense with Seymour. He was a hit from the beginning.

Hiring a library dog was the inspiration of Library Director Jennifer Sprague. She’s Seymour’s owner and certified handler. The pair was matched by Assistance Dogs of the West, which also provided two weeks of intensive training when Seymour was just a pup.

Together, Sprague and Seymour passed the “public access test” at De Vargas Center. It involved learning the basic commands — “Down,” “Stay,” “Leave it” — and being able to walk through a public place and remain calm about ignoring food, about strangers patting him, about loud noises and about being handed off to someone else.

Calmness is an essential in Seymour’s line of work. He’s a natural; Seymour exhibits a calmness that shades into impassivity. “He’s a very mellow dog,” Sprague told the Journal proudly. “He loves to just sit next to people and have them pet on him.”

Sprague said she got the idea for a library dog after experiencing the stress inherent in the St. John’s College programs. Although the slender young woman looks like she could be an incoming freshman, Sprague holds a master’s degree in library science from the University of Iowa (her home state) and has completed both graduate programs offered at St. John’s. She came to the college as an assistant in 2001 and has been library director since November 2002.

She said she researched the possibility of a facility dog and presented a proposal to college officials, who had to create a waiver for Seymour, since most dogs are prohibited on the campus.

Dean of the College Victoria Mora said the request came to her and to the College Instruction Committee. “Jennifer presented the idea. She thought it might have a real benefit for the students,” Mora said. “Our program is rigorous. The students are working in high-level mathematics, high-level translations of ancient Greek and French, difficult laboratory sciences and high-level seminars. It’s all conversation-based, and the students are expected to be prepared and to participate. Having Seymour there was presented as a way to decompress in a healthy way and in a way that’s very therapeutic.

“There was some concern about allergies, because our library is basically one big open space, but we decided it was worth trying and so far it’s been quite a success,” Mora said. “He’s been very therapeutic, in just the way that was predicted.”

Seymour stays behind the desk or in his bed to the side. The students come to him, Sprague said; there’s “no wandering around in the stacks. If people don’t want to interact with him, they don’t have to.”

One student who enjoys Seymour’s attention is sophomore Hannah Crepps, 20, from Elizabethtown, Ky. Crepps, who also works in the library, said she enjoys sitting on the carpet near Seymour’s bed and stroking him while she reads her textbooks.

“I’m definitely an animal person, and he’s a very mellow dog. He doesn’t ever really seem to want anything from you. He’s happy to have you just sit there and pet him,” Crepps said. “It’s really kind of nostalgic for me, because I grew up with a black Lab who died when I was 13.

“It’s a very ‘homey’ feeling,” the student added. “I live in the dorm, so I don’t really have a place. Sitting there petting Seymour, you just feel like you’re in your living room.”

She glanced down at Seymour, standing quietly at her side. “I have a pretty good relationship with Seymour,” Crepps said. “Plus, he smells good.” (Sprague rubs a little lavender oil on Seymour’s coat now and then.)

Seymour also interacts after school with the children of library staff members. “One staff member had a young child who was afraid of dogs, and he has brought his child a couple of times to meet Seymour, who is very calm and gentle with him,” Sprague said. “It seems to help.

Sprague walks Seymour every day during her lunch hour and takes him with her when she visits other campus buildings.

Besides his regular job, like any “Johnnie” (aka St. John’s student), Seymour does volunteer work in the community. Once a week, Sprague takes him to nearby Atalaya Elementary School, where he is a reading therapy dog for youngsters struggling with the basic skill.

“He lies down and the kids sprawl against him and read to him,” the librarian reported. “It’s a big help to them — someone listening who isn’t correcting them or judging them.”

Mora said Seymour’s volunteer efforts are only natural. “I’ve heard about service animals for individuals, but this is a community animal, a facility dog,” she said. “We’re very community-minded at St. John’s, so he fits right in.”