Creating a Therapy Dog Program To Promote Reading, Reduce Stress

A school librarian combines her love of dogs and books in a successful pilot program.

Students in Heather Chang's school library enjoy visits from the reading therapy dogs.

As a school library media specialist, I’ve always wanted to combine my two personal interests in the library: books and dogs. Public libraries programs with children reading to dogs inspired me to start a program in my school library.

In my previous role as a middle school librarian in New Hampshire, I proposed an initiative for students to read to dogs in the library, but was told no dogs were allowed on school property for any reason. This was not the community to embrace therapy dogs in the library.

Three years ago, I took a position at a library that serves middle and high school students in a Boston suburb. My first year, when students were taking Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, I noticed de-stressing stations in the school lobby. Chocolate tasting and aromatherapy stations were set up in the lobby near a fenced off area where students could visit with dogs and handlers.

I also noticed one of my principals brought his own dog to school every day during the summer. I researched my idea of using therapy dogs in the library for this more receptive environment. When I approached the principals with my proposed reading therapy dog program, they agreed to let me pilot the idea. Organizing and coordinating this popular dog therapy program has added to my daily workload, however, it is so much fun that it does not feel like work.

The dogs seem to enjoy the visits as much as the students.

The pilot

I’m now into my second year of my Happy Readers Library Dogs program. Dogs and their handlers visit the library weekly, alternating time blocks so that both middle and high school students can benefit.

Therapy dogs have been shown to improve moods, mental health, and school climate. I’ve personally witnessed the positive impact on student and staff. The kids love interacting with therapy dogs, whether it is reading to them in a relaxing, non-judgmental setting or just chatting with the dog’s handler and petting the animals.

One of my high school students wrote a paper for her psychology class noting that the reading therapy dogs help her with managing stress. Betty D’Angelo, ESL teacher for both of my schools, says that the program “helps students overcome shyness when reading in front of other students in English.”

High school special education teacher Suzanne Bediz signs her students up every time the dogs are on site. The program “engages students in the reading process, [particularly] for kids who struggle with reading as a skill,” she says. “It makes students buy into reading because it becomes an enjoyable experience. It’s both a social emotional and a reading skill- building piece. … The kids look forward to it and fight for who gets to go to the library. I love it; they love it!”

High school students don’t sign up as much as middle schoolers, but once they see the dogs in the library, they like to interact. Some teachers allow students to take a few minutes for a dog therapy session when the schedule allows. Many high schoolers just want to cuddle and visit with the dogs and chat with the handlers. It’s a relaxing, fun experience for students, whether they want to read or just visit.

I don’t force the reading piece on students. Most middle school students arrive with a book, but whether they read or just visit with the animals, the experience is positive.

We have worked with dog handlers who have certified reading therapy dogs and others own dogs with no formal reading therapy training.

Fran Weil of Dog B.O.N.E.S, a local organization affiliated with Perfect Paws/Pet Ministry, the group that certifies most of the dogs in my program, explains that certification is an extra element for therapy dogs. She adds that the organization’s expectations of dogs and their handlers are very stringent—and are designed to ensure the well-being not only of the people they visit, but also of the dogs.

I keep photos of each dog on the circulation desk along with a sign-up sheet for that animal’s next visit. Students usually sign up while checking out books. The handlers bring their dogs for one-hour visits, broken into 10-minute time slots.

Not only are therapy dog visits enjoyable for my students, the dogs also seem happy to be a part of the interactions. The animals have calm temperaments and are completely relaxed around students. The dogs visiting our library this year include Hazel, a blonde labradoodle; Coco, a black goldendoodle; Ava, a white shih tzu; and Olive and Simon, both blonde goldendoodles.

The dogs are low-shedding, hypoallergenic breeds. The program is completely voluntary, and the school nurses advised me that by the time students are in middle and high school, they know if they are allergic and will not take part.

Best practices

I’ve posted photos on Instagram each time the therapy dogs visit, prompting questions from librarians across the country. Here are best practices I’ve developed.

● Search reading therapy dogs in your local area and organizations that train dog owners and their dogs to be certified therapy dogs.

● Propose a plan to administrators that addresses benefits and possible objections to the program.

● Before starting the visits, have volunteers check in with school office for any background checks, fingerprints, or other safety requirements for visitors to your school.

● Once you have approval to pilot your program, set up an initial visit to gauge student interest.

● Use morning announcements a week before each visit and up to the day of to remind kids to sign up or come at their scheduled time.

● When kids sign up, I suggest they take a picture of their time, or put the appointment it in their agenda.

● In addition to posting photos on social media, I use flyers to build excitement in the community. Check with your school to make sure you aren’t posting pictures of students whose parents have not given consent.

Heather Chang is the library media specialist at Ipswich Middle/High School in Ipswich, MA. She has worked as a library media specialist for the past seventeen years in Boston area elementary, middle and high schools. When she is not enjoying her students and therapy dogs at her school, she can be found cycling through Boston's North Shore, cavorting with dogs, and catching up on the latest YA books in her school library.



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