Libraries are starting to leverage kids’ natural affection for dogs. Here are three libraries that have really gotten resourceful with having man’s best friend help children focus on reading. Young patrons are able to engage with animals in a way that is beneficial for all concerned.
Leland (IL) Community Unit School District
Media specialist Mary Hamer has found an effective (and cuddly) way to nurture the reading skills of young students. Hamer is a proud owner of three puppies: Ollie, a cavachon; Penny, a toy poodle; and the newest addition to the family, Louie, a French bulldog.
Since Leland is a district with fewer than 300 students, Hamer needs to be flexible and creative with program ideas. Hamer, who enjoys photography in her free time, was perusing Facebook one day when she came up with the idea for the Book Barks program.
Hamer was musing about how all the famous dogs on Facebook got that way. “I love photography, I love reading, and I love promoting books to children,” says Hamer. “So then I tried bringing it down to, what do I have to offer? What do I have that’s a little different?” The answer jumped out at her: books. So she decided to combine all the things she loved—books, photography, dogs, and kids. She determined to create a program that would be “great for kids, but my little guys as well.” Hamer began to bring in her puppies for reading sessions, with approval from her principal.
After a few months, she incorporated them into book review sessions with her fourth- and fifth- grade students. That idea came from the cover of a book that was unique to Hamer’s situation, Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio. On that cover, a French bulldog is sitting on a yellow chair that looks a lot like one Hamer owns. She recalls being excited as it occurred to her “What if Louie did a review of this book? The kids just love him so. He might inspire them to read certain books.”
Hamer’s program has been met with great success. Both parents and teachers enjoy the company of the puppies, and attendance is steady. Hamer likens the effect of the pups as a sort of bribery: “Even the high school kids come down.”
Scarsdale (NY) Public Library
Therapy dogs have long been used to calm and assist their human companions. Now, they are finding their way into libraries. Eileen Corbett leads the Wag Your Tale program, bringing young readers together with certified therapy dogs from the Good Dog Foundation. The one-hour program occurs once a month.
“They secured a trained dog,” Corbett says of her experience with the foundation. “You know their behavior is going to be what you need it to be. Once you have the right partnership, it is very smooth.”
Corbett says a “canine connection” transpires at each session. The kids bond with the dog while reading to it, but there is also interaction between the child and the owner of the dog. The owner always winds up fielding questions about his or her pet. “The child wants to know all about the dog. Often, it turns into a family interaction, because the parent or sibling will sit with the little reader.”
Corbett says that, yes, the dogs are avid listeners. For the young readers, the lack of judgment involved allows a freer expression of words and thought vs. reading to, say, a peer or a parent.
“The thing about dogs is that they are endlessly patient,” says Corbett. “Humans are not. The dogs are excited to be here. As each child approaches, the dog’s tail starts wagging. The child is comfortable reading to the dog. There’s just no pressure to it.”
Corbett recounts a breakthrough she witnessed. “I had this one little girl whom I was very impressed with,” says Corbett. “The father brought her month after month for nearly a whole year. She was very afraid of dogs. She would not even go near a dog. So he would just sit in the waiting area, and I would periodically signal to him,”If she’s ready, I’ll put her in.” But she’d only watch from afar. “Finally, she says to her father, ‘I’d like to see that dog.’ That was the first time she’d ever put her hand on a dog.”
“The father was so happy,” says Corbett. “He wasn’t planning to own a dog, but he still didn’t want her to be afraid. They continued to come. She was able to work through her fear and, finally, read to the dog. She was a steady customer for a long time.”
Haverstraw King’s Daughters Library, Garnerville, NY
As a newcomer to his post as librarian, Mark Zaino found the PAWS for Reading program to be one of his favorites. The program, made possible through a partnership with the Hudson Valley Humane Society, has been a hit. Patrons age five and older can enjoy the company of the visiting pooch. But what makes this program unique is that animal handlers help out.
“The kids read at their own pace,” says Zaino. “If they get stuck, the handler of the dog will help the child ease into the words or pronounce a word. That’s what I like about this. It’s like reading assistance. It’s helping them become better readers.”
For librarians interested in starting a similar program in their own branch, Zaino has some seasoned advice to share.
“Most of the time, those programs already work with a hospital,” says Zaino. “Check to see if [local hospitals] have a pet program to recommend.” If a program works with a hospital, they must have insurance and a certification process for the pets.
When it comes to reading, it’s clear that a little furry assistant goes a long way. Who knew Max could do more than fetch our slippers?
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