A therapy rat named Vincent is on a tour heading to school and libraries to help children learn to read. Although the rat is not able to sound words or spell words, he is there to provide a non-judgemental ear for kids who need a confidence boost to be able to read aloud.
Vincent is part of the Pet Partner’s Read With Me Scheme and is trained to sit with a child and accept strokes and cuddles as the child reads through any book they fancy.
‘What makes this special is that Vincent will not get on to the kid if they mispronounce a word or skip a sentence or two,’ Vincent’s handler and owner, Abby Chesnut, explains
‘If you think about it, if someone keeps correcting you every time you read out loud it can become disheartening and you might not want to do it anymore. ‘The point of the program is to improve reading confidence.
‘I have the child sit in a bean bag chair next to me and I sit Vincent on the arm of it so he can “see” the pictures. Rats have poor eyesight so I sometimes ask the child to put the book close to Vincent so he can see them. Vincent just has to sit there and listen.’
While it sounds all easy and smooth, the 26-year-old handler explains that an animal will require a specific personality as well as proper training to be a therapy pet. Thankfully, Abby knows her stuff too well.
Abby’s journey started when she came across her local therapy animal group, Compassionate paws, who linked her up with Pet Partners who taught her how to train her pets and get them certified.
After her training, Abby adopted a rat named Jasper and his brother. She trained the two rats and visited colleges, libraries, and public events to show people how lovely rats can be.
After working for about a year, both rats passed away. She didn’t want to stop the scheme and therefore found a new breeder from whom she picked baby rat Vincent, alongside his brother, Xavier.
Once they were old enough, she began training them.
‘For therapy rats, they need to be on a towel or in a basket wearing a harness, be good with loud noises, different smells, and be around lots of people,’ says Abby. ‘They cannot have bitten any person or domesticated animal and if you want people to give them treats they need to be gentle.
After attending some pet-friendly events, Abby realized that Vincent was calm and best suited for the reading idea while his brother Xavier was far too curious.
Once Vincent was chosen as the therapy rat, he underwent more training as well as nail trimming, baths, and litter box training before he and Abby underwent the therapy animal evaluation which he passed with flying colors.
Since then the two have been visiting colleges, libraries and schools to help give children confidence reading and reduce people’s stress levels.
Abby has already noticed some kids benefiting greatly from Vincent’s reading charm.
‘We started in November and have been visiting there every other week since,’ she tells us. ‘We’ve had kids come and go, but two boys, in particular, have been there pretty much every visit and have had major improvement. ‘They are older, but on the autism spectrum so their reading level doesn’t quite match. ‘At first, they were uneasy and stumbled their words, and now they are reading faster and clearer with confidence to boot!’
Abby hopes that alongside helping individuals in one-on-one settings, Vincent’s story will also inspire people to give rats a chance. ‘Rats are amazing animals,’ she says. ‘Wild rats and pet rats are very different with pet (or fancy, as they call it) rats being domesticated, just like dogs or cats.
‘They are insanely smart, clean, and oh so very cuddly! Rats clean themselves like cats all the time. ‘I actually give Vincent a bath before each event and even then he is constantly licking himself afterward.’