HANCOCK — Caleb Hawbaker had already zipped through four books and was ready to read more.
After all, Winston, a specially trained golden retriever, is a really good listener — especially if Cheerios are involved.
So after Caleb tossed a pleading glance to his mom, Julie Hawbaker, and got the nod from Winston's owners, Sally and Stan Bowser, the boy launched into a reprise of a book.
"Ever since last month he's been reading all the time," said his mom, who said she used to struggle to get him to read a single book.
For Caleb and his family, the act of reading to Winston signals the return to normalcy.
Caleb, 7, was diagnosed with kidney cancer when he was 4. Surgeries and lengthy hospital stays took a toll on his body and has left him and his family emotionally drained.
The cancer is in remission now.
Since Caleb has been feeling better, the focus has shifted to books, though they're constantly living in the shadow of a relapse. Wednesday was the second time Caleb has attended the monthly reading program at Hancock War Memorial Library wit Winston.
It was as though it were a reunion of two old friends. The moment Caleb walked into the library, Winston's tail started wagging. Caleb greeted Winston with loving pats to the head. Winston gently gave him his paw. They ended the reading session with a belly rub and a high five.
"When I was in the hospital, I had a dog visit me," said Sally Bowser, Winston's owner.
Bowser, who lives in Hancock, said a back injury 10 years ago called for a lengthy hospital stay.
"When you're down and out, the dog really brightens your day," she said.
Since then, Sally and her husband Stan, decided they wanted to share the experience with others. They trained their dog Winston to become a "reading" dog, which means he's registered and certified by the Delta Society of Pet Partners.
"He had to go through 20 different tests," Stan Bowser said.
Children have been formally reading with Winston since October 2010, said branch manager Marilyn Pontius. "I wish more people would come," Pontius said.
Caleb is the youngest of the four Hawbaker kids. The family lives in Hancock. Their father is the Rev. Jeff Hawbaker of Orchard Ridge First Church of God in Hancock.
None of them had shown any signs of sickness, with the exception of their dad's ankle injury.
But in 2008, Caleb was battling a fever, so Hawbaker thought he might have strep throat because another of his siblings had it. They entered the doctor's office at 9 a.m. for a case of strep throat and left at 4 p.m. with a diagnosis of kidney cancer.
His parents took the news hard.
"Caleb was clueless," Hawbaker said. "He really didn't know what cancer was. He wanted to go to McDonald's, so that's what we did."
His parents explained to Caleb what was wrong.
Initially, they didn't use the word "cancer."
"We said he had a boo-boo in his belly, in his kidney, in his belly area and that they had to take it out," she said. "Then he had to have medicine to keep it from coming back."
Hawbaker said there wasn't a specific moment when they said, "Caleb you have cancer." The word got introduced gradually, she said.
"He knows now there are people who have died who had cancer," she said. "We keep it under wraps."
Still, Caleb surprises his family with the things he remembers. Sometimes at night, he will crawl into bed with his parents relaying aspects of the ordeal that she and husband, Jeff, find hard to remember.
Then, there are times when Caleb speaks more like an adult — like the time when he was at the end of nearly a month of chemotheraphy that came after doctors removed his bad kidney. He was encouraged by hospital staff to get out of bed and walk.
"All he had to do was get to the chair, which was five steps away and that was a big accomplishment for the day," Hawbaker said. Then they all heard him mumble, "Life is so hard."
"Oh my, gosh, my heart broke because it was like we're just getting started," Hawbaker said. "This was only the beginning. I didn't have any idea what we were headed for, but I knew it wouldn't be fun."
Now that he's feeling better, Caleb has become a voracious reader — at least when Winston's around. The family has a pet dog, a Shih Tzu-Bichon Frise cross named Moses, but Caleb won't read to him.
"He won't stay still long enough," said Caleb, who's in the first grade.
Then he presented the book he was looking forward to reading most, "No, No Jack!"
Jack is the name of a family dog, who had been getting in trouble for hiding things in the family's closet. But in the end, his actions prove helpful.
This was both the first and the last of the four books Caleb read to Winston on Wednesday.
Before Caleb parted ways with his friend, he read the final lines with a moderate, but deliberate pace, "Yes, yes! Good boy, Jack! Dogs do make good friends."