Elaine Demoret has worked at Boone County Public Library for five years as a Youth Services Associate in the Children’s Department. Her mission is to bring quality children’s programs and performers to the library from a variety of community resources.
“The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and he will not judge you; rather, he may make a fool of himself, too.” –Samuel Butler
Anyone who has a special friendship with a dog knows this is true. At BCPL, children have an opportunity to make friends with some very special dogs through a program called PAWS to Read. A group of licensed therapy dogs and their owners visit the Library every other week. Children sign up or drop in to spend time reading to and visiting with one or more of the dogs. After reading, each child receives a certificate and a special gift from the dog owners. The best reward for reading to a PAWS to Read dog, however, is an appreciative wag of the tail or a gentle nudge from a canine friend who enjoyed spending time with the child. The program began in June of 2009, and since then, over 3,000 children have read to the Library’s therapy dogs. Many of these children are ‘repeat customers,’ visiting the program on a regular basis.
Why read to a dog? What is the purpose? What are the benefits? These questions have been answered through several research studies. At Tufts University, researchers found that children who read to dogs improve their reading skills and their attitudes toward reading more than children who read to humans. The National Association of Education Progress documented that children who are learning to read are more successful when placed in a stress-free environment. What can be less stressful than reading to a dog? A dog is kind. A dog is not judgmental. A dog does not criticize. Children can enjoy reading aloud to a dog without fear of making a mistake, being corrected, or reading poorly. The result is a boost in confidence, and children who feel like confident readers will naturally read more. According to a study by Ebert & Miller, increased reading time leads to improved comprehension and enjoyment of reading. So, why read to a dog? The answer is quite clear.
“This is the best thing that has happened to my boys,” reports Beverly Hirsch, mother of Patrick and Andrew. “We have been visiting the PAWS to Read dogs since the program began, and it has definitely made my children feel positive about reading. We rarely miss a PAWS to Read day at the Library.”
The PAWS to Read program is organized by Tim and Shelley Rose, whose Saint Bernard, Squirt, is a veteran member of the PAWS to Read team. Tim and Shelley organize the schedule, communicate with the owners, and follow up with many of the children who have become regular visitors to the program. They also maintain a PAWS to Read Facebook page, where they post the upcoming schedule, photos and news about the program. The PAWS to Read owners do all of this – - and much more – - to share their special dogs with others and to do something meaningful for the community.
The PAWS to Read dogs come in all shapes, sizes, colors and breeds, but they have one important thing in common – - a unique set of qualities that make them ideal therapy dogs. The PAWS to Read dogs are patient, friendly, gentle and confident. They are at ease in many different situations, enjoy being petted, and like being around people. They especially like children. Prior to being admitted into the therapy dog training program, PAWS to Read dogs were observed by trained experts over several trial periods to insure they possess the personality traits and qualities to be effective therapy dogs. After successfully passing the observation sessions, the dogs then entered an intense three-month therapy dog training program, learning additional skills that would be needed when working as therapy dogs in a variety of settings and situations. The dogs are also closely monitored with follow-up observations during the time they are working as therapy dogs. With their special talents, qualities and training, BCPL’s PAWS to Read dogs truly are ‘a breed apart.’
One quick peek into the PAWS to Read room reveals the magic that happens there. As children arrive, high fives, smiles, and wagging tails fill the room. The experienced PAWS to Read child, book in hand, exuberantly hugs his ‘favorite’ canine reading buddy and plops on the floor at his feet. A first-time youngster lingers a moment at the entrance, sizing up the furry friends who are waiting quietly, patiently, expectantly, for a visit from a soon-to-be reading buddy. “Who would you like to read to today?” Tim or Shelley asks as they introduce the dogs one by one, telling something unique or funny about each one. Soon, the child reaches for a book and eases into a chair near the dog. As the children settle, the dogs do, too. They stretch out on the floor, rest their chins atop their paws, and focus their eyes on their soon-to-be reading buddy. This is when the magic begins. Children’s quiet voices fill the air. Words flow from the pages of a favorite book. Young hands gently reach out to stroke the backs of furry new friends. Children and dogs share an unforgettable moment of mutual, non-judgmental, and unconditional love. This is the magic of PAWS to Read.