February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

At Virginia Libraries, Kids Will Read with Dogs This Summer to Bone Up on Literacy


A young library patron reads to a therapy dog from the
Virginia organization Caring Canines. Photo: Dick Pitini

The Chesterfield (VA) County Public Library (CCPL) has big plans for the dog days of summer. With the help of therapy dogs, a reading therapist, and reading mentors, the library will host a program designed to prevent summer reading loss among children, including disabled kids. Children completing the program will have their efforts recognized when the library brings free meals to animals at the Chesterfield County Animal Shelter in their honor.

The summer reading program, Paws to Read, is supported by a  $3,000 Summer Reading grant from the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and the distributor Baker and Taylor. The participating dogs will come from the Virginia Sprite’s HERO and Caring Canines, both therapy dog organizations in Virginia.

During the sessions with dogs in the library, the children will practice their skills by reading aloud to the animals, who act as a patient, judgement-free audience. The kids can read without self-consciousness, while the dogs can get some extra belly rubs.

In weekly two-hour sessions designed for special-needs kids, children will work with a reading specialist for an hour in groups of 10 or fewer, says CCPL librarian Anna Wilson-Stillwell, who has worked at CCPL for seven years. For the second hour, the children will practice the skills they worked on by reading to dogs.

In such initiatives, “The dogs are there to listen and provide a sense of comfort to the kids while they read,” says Aleta Shelton, director of Caring Canines. “Most of the kids sit on the floor with the dogs beside them or in front of them and read to them,” along with showing them pictures in some cases.

“A lot of the kids will keep one hand on the book and one hand on the dog,” Shelton adds. “With the smaller dogs, some kids will sit on a sofa or chair with the dog beside them.” In some canine-centric reading events, “there may be as many as 40 kids for five or so dogs, the kids will read for five to ten minutes and let other kids take turns reading to the dogs.”


Photo: Dick Pitini

“The handler—dog owner—must have control of the leash at all times,” Shelton adds, noting that this complies with rules from Therapy Dogs Inc., an organization that registers and insures the handler and dog team.

Each of CCPL’s nine branches will kick off the 10-week summer program with an opening event, says Wilson-Stillwell, with animals present at some of them. In addition to spending time with the dogs, kids will log the books they read over the summer on the library site. “To obtain a completion certificate and be eligible for incentives and the grand prize drawing, each participant must read a minimum of six books,” says Wilson-Stillwell. CCPL will also host storytimes and weekly drawings for books and craft projects.

The inclusive nature of the CCPL’s grant proposal to ALSC and Baker & Taylor made the grant application stand out among other contenders. “Paws to R.E.A.D. is really unique because they’re incorporating the therapy dogs to be reading with mainstream children and also with children that have special reading needs,” said Nancy Baumann, chair of ALSC Grant Administration Committee, who estimates that the committee looked at 20 applications.

The group also liked that the program benefits homeless animals. “Kids know that by reading they’re doing community service,” she said. “It means a lot more to kids to know that they’re doing something good and helpful rather than just get a trinket that they throw away and forget about.”

CCPL has carried out similar programs connecting reading and shelter animals, though not during the summer. In a related 2011 initiative called Read 2 Feed, homeless animals received one meal for every 10 books kids read or 10 hours they spent reading. That resulted in 1,600 donated meals. In the 2012 fiscal year, 1,078 children joined the library’s programs with reading dogs; the number jumped to 1,842 in 2013.

CCPL has offered more general summer reading programs for over three decades, according to Wilson-Stillwell. “During the 2013 summer reading program, 6,133 children and 1,533 teens registered for the program,” she says.  CCPL is currently participating in a study in partnership with the Library of Virginia that aims to show the impact of summer reading at the local level, she adds.

The Caring Canines dogs who participate in reading programs are as varied as the children who read to them. “We have all shapes, sizes, breeds and mixed breeds,” Shelton says. “We have everything from a five-pound Maltese to a 165-pound Newfoundland participating, so if children are afraid of bigger dogs, there will be smaller dogs available to read to. Most of the children pick out the same dog to read to every visit.”



  1. This sounds like such a great program! I really enjoyed this article.

  2. Yaneysi Okyle says:

    I love this initiative! I think it is for a great cause. Thanks for the thorough article.