From the very moment that I heard of the concept, I was 100% mesmerized and enchanted. I have worked as a librarian for over 20 years but until recently I had yet to hear of the idea that children could read aloud to trained therapy dogs at the library. I was thrilled when my library director endorsed the concept and the wheels were set into motion for the program to happen where I work in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. A national organization called Therapy Dogs International provided me with names of people who have certified therapy dogs and enabled a speedy implementation.
Why read to a dog instead of a person? What better way to instill in children a love for reading — a positive and fun association for a skill that can be challenging when first learning literacy. If you stumble over a word, the dog will unconditionally keep sharing affection and encouragement. What started as a chore suddenly becomes fun.
I have to admit that I fell in love with reading at a tender young age and embodied the cliche of the kid hiding the book under the covers to read with a flashlight rather than going to sleep at night. Yet I am not a card-carrying dog lover. As a child, I was drawn to cats as pets and had all fashion of cat memorabilia around my bedroom – cat calendar, stuffed animal cats, etc. When we finally got a dog in our family, it was seen as my brother’s province, not mine. However, our two therapy dogs visiting the library this Fall just might create in me a convert.
One of the therapy dogs visiting the library is named Chloe. She is a Papillon toy dog who absolutely gushes enthusiasm, affection and vivaciousness. She is only 1 1/2 years old and she brims with excitement when meeting with the children. The other therapy dog is Sadie, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever who is working as a therapy dog in her “retirement” now that she has an award-winning show career under her collar at places such as Westminster Dog Show.
Children plus dogs plus books plus the library is an absolutely winning formula for early literacy. When parents call to sign up for an appointment, they explain that their children show tremendous interest in the task even if they don’t usually like reading. Others who already love to read still put tremendous attention and practice into their appointment before it happens. One asked Mom again and again “Do you think Chloe will like this book?” and then chose on her own to read Martha Speaks, a book about a dog who can speak after eating a magical alphabet soup.
What I treasure the most in the dogs as I watch them with the children is their seemingly innate wisdom in how to behave with each child and depending on the person the dog will act in an entirely different manner. Sadie brought tears to my eyes when she gave extra affection to a young boy with special needs. Sitting next to each other on a couch, Sadie wrapped her paw around the boy’s back so that he was nestled within her in a maternal hug. The next visit with Sadie offered the opportunity for the little boy to hold her leash while the handler left him in charge and brought in two more of her dogs for the boy to meet. He looked like he was on top of the world with the chance to have this responsibility.
Might I add that the unsung heroes here are also the dog’s handlers. Chloe’s “mom” is a second grade elementary school teacher in New Bedford and she is fantastic with the kids as well. Sadie’s “mom” is currently a breeder of Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers and her own years of experience as a Mom with grown children is evident as well. They both offer as much unconditional encouragement to the children as the dogs do.
All I can say is that I hope I learn a lesson or two from these wonderful therapy dogs. What a gift to attune yourself to the people you interact with and adapt your behavior to suit their needs. If a dog can do it, certainly I should be able to train myself as well. No wonder the word dog is God spelled backwards.