Children read to therapy dogs, other animals to improve skills

A young reader enjoys time with Riley, a therapy dog at Wright Memorial Public Library; photo: Margaret Fogarty

By Erin Callahan

Many people could probably remember the feeling in elementary school, after flipping through a textbook or reading a book to find the right page, when the teacher would announce that the class would be taking turns reading aloud. Some enjoyed it; others dreaded it. They didn’t want to stumble over the words, mispronounce something, or read too slow. Libraries across the country have started to acknowledge this feeling and offer a solution: reading to man’s—and woman’s— “best friend.”

Numerous studies have come to the conclusion that pet interaction—whether active or passive—can help reduce anxiety, this according to “The Heath Benefits of Companion Animals,” published by the National Park Service. Pair that with extra reading practice and you have a recipe for success. Additionally, dogs and other animals are not judgmental. They don’t care—or know—if a child makes a mistake.

This program goes by different names in libraries across the country, including Paws to Read and Tail Waggin’ Tutors, and is offered by the Wright Memorial Public Library in Oakwood, the Yellow Springs Community Library, and the Washington-Centerville Public Library. They typically see participation from children of all ages from kindergarten and first grade through fourth or fifth grade.

Many of these programs were started here in Dayton rather serendipitously. The program at the Yellow Springs Community Library has been in place for over a decade. Though it just so happened that Terese DeSimio, who began working part time at the library last year, has a therapy golden retriever named Anu that she was happy to involve in the program.

“He’s so good and gentle and he loves kids,” DeSimio says. “When I first got him, I thought, ‘He’s going to need a job to feel happy.’ So I got him certified in pet therapy a few months later and he’s really good at it.”

Over at the Wright Memorial Public Library, there’s Jacqui Taylor, youth services coordinator, who had implemented a similar program at a library in Indiana before moving to Oakwood in 2013. She was interested in starting a program here, and within two weeks in the summer of 2014, two patrons approached her with the same interest—and one owned a therapy dog. A patron with a therapy dog also approached Amy Allgeier, youth services specialist at the Washington-Centerville Library, in 2012, hoping to start a program.

After Taylor started her program, she established three missions: to focus on the soft skills of reading, teach children how to be safe with dogs, and reach out to children with special needs.

“We know that kids’ literacy is more than reading words on page; they have to know the meaning from it, emotional and vocabulary meaning, and be able to share it with others,” Taylor says. “We also know that a major cause of emergency room accidents is pet injuries. So during our first 18-week period, we had some safety materials available for the kids and parents too, like coloring pages, little bookmarks that talked about safe ways to approach a dog, what to do if you saw a dog with no human, that kind of thing. And then the tertiary mission ended up rising in importance over time. For kids with special needs, it can be hard to get through demanding behavioral needs on a given day. We thought if we could create an environment where they could work on their own literacy in their own way—whether they’re leaning on the dog, they’re reading to the dog, they need to move or they need mom with them, we wanted to foster that independence and give kids with special needs their own time to work on literacy.”

Though there is a mix of children who attend to get extra practice, there are also many who just want to cuddle with a dog, Allgeier adds.

“We’ve even had one mom sign her son up because he was deathly afraid of dogs,” she says. “He actually came in, sat down next to the dog, and he was very timid of course, but then by the end of the 15 minutes of reading, he was petting the dog. Now he comes back and loves it.”

The libraries partner with therapy animal organizations such as DOGTORS, Miami Valley Pet Therapy Association, and Therapy Dogs International, and volunteer handlers and their animals donate their time at the libraries. According to DeSimio, handlers and their pets are certified through a six-week course and are trained in several different environments and scenarios to prepare them for service work. The animals should also be calm, well behaved, and good-tempered; handlers and their pets must be recertified every two years, and the animals must be seen by a vet every six months to ensure they’re healthy.

Based on demand and the availability of the handlers and their animals, each library runs the program a little differently. For example, the Yellow Springs Library hosts their events once a month during the school year, and they average two to three animals—including dogs, and sometimes cats and rabbits—and usually have about eight children attend each event. Sometimes adults even attend to hang out with the animals and de-stress.

The Wright Memorial Public Library sees similar attendance at its drop-in program, and holds it more frequently for an hour every other Sunday during the school year and monthly during the summer. There are only service dogs as part of the program, with different breeds including golden retrievers, a Scottish terrier, and a poodle. Olivia Hessler, youth services associate, explains that it’s less popular in the summer due to children’s summer vacations and camps.

The Washington-Centerville Public Library, however, has experienced very high attendance. So much so, they had to start registration and a wait list. They typically host their program for an hour every week of the month except August, and each child gets 15 minutes to read with a dog. Allgeier said spots at the event never stay available for long, and they try to give everyone a chance to participate.

“The spots always open on the first Monday of the month, so parents know and they can call. Usually within just a couple hours, they’re full,” Allgeier says. “We’ve had such popularity, but the problem is we kept getting the same kids signing up, so if someone were to stop in, see the program, and want to register, they wouldn’t know it’s already full. So we’ve started this new stipulation that a child can only register for three reading times per month [out of four] and they can be put on the wait list for other ones.”

So far, Allgeier says, they’ve only had dogs like golden retrievers, poodles, boxers, and Shih Tzus, but she says it would be fun to eventually introduce new animals like teacup pigs or horses to their program.

Taylor emphasizes that while dogs are the most popular animals for this reading program, any therapy animal can make an impact for children.

“Dog is man’s best friend and a dog is a reader’s best friend, too,” Taylor says. “As they’re developing their reading skills, whether they’re super confident and ready to go, or they’re still shy about how they’re doing with their reading, everyone can benefit from being with a therapy-certified pet to lower their heart rate and make a more calm environment, improve their reading, or just make their day a little bit better.”

For more information on local Paws to Read programs, please visit GreeneLibrary.info/cool-creatures, WCLibrary.info/Storytime, and WrightLibrary.org/PawstoRead.

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Erin Callahan
Reach DCP freelance writer Erin Callahan at ErinCallahan@DaytonCityPaper.com

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