Something to Bark About: Carmichael Library Helps Kids Learn Reading Through “Read to a Dog” Programs

by Corrie Pelc

Eddy – therapy dog of Lend A Heart President Barbara Street – listens while a young reader practices their reading.

Eddy – therapy dog of Lend A Heart President Barbara Street – listens while a young reader practices their reading. // Photo courtesy of Maryann Farmar/Lend A Heart.

Every Tuesday, about 25 children ranging in ages from five to 10 come to the Carmichael Library after school to work on their reading skills.

They’re not reading to a librarian, or a tutor or a teacher. Instead, they’re reading to one of the trained therapy dogs that calmly sits for an hour and lets the children read to them.

“It’s really fun and the kids just love it,” says Shelley Andrews, branch supervisor for the Carmichael Library. “Everybody enjoys it – the kids love it, the staff loves it because we love to see the dogs, the owners of the dogs love it, and of course the dogs love it with all the attention they’re getting. It’s just really fantastic.”

Read to Rover

Carmichael Library began offering what they call the “Read to Rover” program back in 2007 when Carmichael resident Ellen Wildfeuer presented the idea to the library. A retired nurse, Wildfeuer knew of the benefits of pet therapy, and had a dog that had gone through the process of becoming a certified therapy dog.

To start the program, Wildfeuer used her connections to therapy dog associations to find other volunteers to bring their therapy dogs to the program. Currently they have 13 teams of therapy dogs and handlers that rotate coming to the library each week, with at least seven of those teams coming every single week, she says. “In 2011, we donated almost 2,000 hours of volunteer time,” Wildfeuer adds.

Carmichael Library is one of five branches of Sacramento Public Library that offers a “read to a dog” program. Another is Belle Cooledge Library in Land Park, which has been offering their “Read to a Dog” program for about three years and is currently held the last Tuesday evening of each month, according to Youth Services Librarian Donna Zick.

Zick says they can have upwards to 30 children at each monthly session, who have the opportunity to read to one of five to 10 therapy dogs. She says the focus is on kids in grades kindergarten through fourth grade, “because we know now that’s an important marker for kids’ reading levels and we want them to be reading at that stage and want them to be fluent and comfortable with reading.”

ReadToDog_Carmichael.jpg: “Read to Rover” volunteer Cathy French and her therapy dog, Kalie, listen to a young reader. // Photo courtesy of Ellen Wildfeuer.

ReadToDog_Carmichael.jpg: “Read to Rover” volunteer Cathy French and her therapy dog, Kalie, listen to a young reader. // Photo courtesy of Ellen Wildfeuer.

Belle Cooledge’s program is run by volunteers through Lend A Heart Lend A Hand Animal-Assisted Therapy. According to President Barbara Street, Lend A Heart began in 1987 and is an organization of volunteer therapy dogs, cats and rabbits and their handlers that serve hospitals, assisted living centers and memory care centers. Street says Lend A Heart had started a “Read to a Dog” program at Rancho Cordova Library nine years ago, and the success of that program caught the attention of Belle Cooledge Library, who then her to start the program at their library.

Relaxed & Fun

So how does a program like this work?

At Belle Cooledge Library, Street says the dogs are in large dog beds in a circle in the children’s corner of the library. She says the hour normally starts with the children petting the dogs, then they select a book they want to read and a dog they want to read it to. “Sometimes two children will read to the same dog, sometimes they’ll just rotate around the room or find the one dog that they really want to spend more time with,” she adds.

A similar situation happens at Carmichael Library, where the therapy dogs and their handlers are in the library’s community room. Andrews says once a child signs up for the session, they can select a book they would like to read or bring their own book, then sit down and read to a dog. Once they are finished, they can sign up again to read to another dog. “Many times they come in and read to two or three dogs,” she adds.

And during this time, Zick says parents are able to sit by to watch or visit with other parents while their child is practicing their reading. “It’s a very relaxed environment,” she adds.

A Lend A Heart volunteer and therapy dog work with a young reader at the “Read to a Dog” program at Belle Cooledge Library. // Photo courtesy of Maryann Farmar/Lend A Heart.

A Lend A Heart volunteer and therapy dog work with a young reader at the “Read to a Dog” program at Belle Cooledge Library. // Photo courtesy of Maryann Farmar/Lend A Heart.

Learning Curve

Many parents may be asking how can a child improve their reading skills by reading to a dog?

First off, Street says it gives children an opportunity to practice their reading in a relaxed, non-classroom environment with a non-judgmental companion. “It’s more of building that really good feeling about reading and then being able to sit there and read out loud to a dog that doesn’t care if you mispronounce word or is not judging you if you’re reading too slow,” she explains.

Wildfeuer agrees, and says this is a fun way for children who have difficulty reading to gain personal confidence. “It’s an enhancement of how the children are learning to read in school in a less structured, more fun, atmosphere,” she adds.

Zick says she has seen the positive impact of the program through a seven year old boy who when he came to his first program did not want to participate, saying he didn’t feel he could read well and didn’t like to read. “He was there the whole hour reading to the dogs, just completely engrossed in it,” she recalls. “He had convinced himself he wasn’t a good reader. Reading is just practice, so this is just another way to practice.”

Although the children are there to read to the dogs, Wildfeuer says the dog handlers are there to help if a child asks for it. “We’ll tell the kids if they need help, let us know and we’ll help them sound out a word,” she adds.

Plus children who participate in the Read to a Dog program can also learn about how to properly behave around animals and how to be more comfortable around dogs, says Andrews. She says the therapy dogs range in sizes from little lap dogs to Great Pyrenees, so for some kids it takes a while for them to be comfortable around the larger dogs. “But they’re all learning after they come for a while and they start feeling comfortable reading to the big dogs, so that’s also a very positive part of it,” Andrews says.

The Read to Rover program at Carmichael Library is held every Tuesday from 3:30-4:30pm. The Read to a Dog program at Belle Cooledge Library is held the fourth Tuesday of each month from 6:30-7:30pm. For more information on these programs, visit www.saclibrary.org.

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