MATTOON -- Mary Gover Gray's standard poodle, Dixie, brought joy to those she visited at senior living and care facilities while working as a therapy dog.
Now, Dixie is bringing joy to readers who are young and young at heart as the main character in a new children's book written by Gray, who is a Mattoon native. The new author's first book, "Dixie Doodle: The Helper Poodle," has been published by Little Creek Press in Mineral Point, Wisc.
Gray, a retired elementary school teacher who lives in Waukesha, Wisc., said Dixie was an American Kennel Club-registered dog with a mischievous personality. Gray said Dixie developed health issues that prevented her from running and jumping in obedience shows, so she began to look for other activities for her standard poodle. Dixie ended up visiting senior citizens in her community as a therapy dog.
"Having a therapy dog was a great activity for giving back to the community, Gray said. "It was just a win-win for all kinds of situations. People just liked her."
One of Gray's post-retirement goals was to write a children's book, so she picked Dixie and her work as a service dog as topics. Gray said she wrote "Dixie Doodle: The Helper Poodle" with the idea that teachers of students in grades first through third could use this book for social studies lessons about inter-generational activities. These were the grade levels that Gray taught.
Since the book was published several months ago, Gray said she has heard from readers who are younger than first grade and from older readers that they have enjoyed the story of "Dixie Doodle." She said many older readers have fun looking for the 15 paw prints that are hidden throughout the book.
Gray, who has promoted the book at signings and other events, said she has been amazed to realize that the stories of her beloved standard poodle have now become part of the children's libraries for so many other families.
"The experience goes on and on. It is really a fantastic experience," Gray said.
Gray said the book's illustrator, Denver Wagner, has done a great job of bringing Dixie's curling black hair and impish looks to life on the page. Gray said she has written a few other stories about Dixie visiting school children and enjoying the passing of the seasons that she hopes to have published, hopefully with illustrations by Wagner.
Dixie lived to be 11 years old. Gray said Dixie's cousin, a white standard poodle named Jasmine, has also been trained to serve as a therapy dog.
Gray said Dixie and Jasmine's names were inspired by her brother, Dr. Jim Gover of Naples, Fla., performing music in a Dixieland jazz festival several years ago in St. Louis. Gray said she often returns to Mattoon to visit her siblings who still live there -- Tom Gover and Ann Monroe Gover. She also has a sister, Sara Main, in Cleveland. Their sister, Jean, is deceased.
During a recent visit to Mattoon, Gray dropped off copies of "Dixie Doodle: The Helper Poodle" for sale at The Book Nook and The Picket Fence shops. She also has donated a copy of the book to the Mattoon Public Library. The book can be purchased online through www.littlecreeekpress.com and www.amazon.com.
"I hope the book brings people a lot of joy and pleasure to read about the antics of my dog and learning about doing good things for other people," Gray said, adding that she hopes "Dixie Doodle" will inspire readers to help out in their communities.