Paws to Read
Children hone skills by reading to dogs at library
Shadow, a golden retriever, likes listening to a human voice. Mitchell Wong, 9, likes reading out loud to an audience. It's a perfect match.
Children and animals alike, who are paired one-on-one, are enjoying the new Paws to Read program at the Danville Public Library.
"It's very relaxing," said Youth Services Librarian Kathleen Baritell. "The children get to choose books they are most comfortable with, recreational reading."
The program was designed to help the reading skills of students in grades one to five who are recommended by reading specialists from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, said Baritell.
The dogs are provided by the Valley Humane Society, which has been helping with Paws to Read at the Pleasanton Library for six years. The program was patterned after one launched in Salt Lake City in 1999, when it was found that children's reading scores went up after they read to dogs on a weekly basis. Their social skills and confidence also improved.
"A patron had asked if it were possible for Danville to have a Paws to Read program," recalled Baritell. "I did some investigating ... then I came back and started setting things up."
Eight children are participating in each of the two six-week sessions being held late Monday afternoons in the Mount Diablo Room of the library.
"Children get to practice to read with no assessment and no corrections," said Baritell. "Nothing is more important for children than to read or be read to." After those recommended by reading specialists are signed up, the program is open to others.
The dogs arrive first to settle in with their owners among the blankets and pillows. Then the children come into the room with books they have chosen.
"The dogs wag their tails when they know they're coming," said Baritell. "They are just lovely, lovely animals. And their handlers are topnotch."
Each dog is different, she noted. "A Chihuahua mix named Rico came right up to this little fellow. He wanted to be petted."
Some dogs lie on their sides. Others look away. Some seem to enjoy sitting there listening.
"Some children pet them, and some children show them the book like we do at story time," said Baritell.
Baritell has learned that some dogs, such as black lab Arbuckle, are very "food-focused" so they can't be given a treat every time they come; their owners say it's better to keep them guessing.
Choosing the children may be easy but choosing the dogs can be difficult, said Wendy McNelley of the Valley Humane Society in Pleasanton, which supplies the animals for both Paws to Read locations. The society also runs a pet therapy program in which dogs and their owners make visits to hospitals and senior care facilities.
"I usually suggest they should sign up for pet therapy first before going to Paws to Read," said McNelley. "We have 120 active teams right now. Someone is doing pet therapy five hours every day of the year."
But a pet therapy pro may not have the temperament for Paws to Read, she noted.
"It takes a certain type of dog," said McNelley, "definitely one not riled up by other dogs. You can't have a playful dog. You need one that is super mellow, responsive to the owner, and calm and submissive to other dogs."
She said she has a miniature dachshund named Oscar who is a great couch dog. "But he wants to hang out on the sofa with mom and dad. He doesn't want to socialize."
The Pleasanton Paws to Read also has a cat named Jefferson. "He belongs to one of our staff members so we knew him already," said McNelley.
The program in Danville is a great success, said Baritell, and people have been calling to ask if there is any more room. "One parent told me the child had been reading to their dog but their dog wasn't paying attention."
One time a reader didn't show up so she invited a child who happened to be visiting the library to come in and read to a dog. "They were very willing," she reported with a laugh.
For more information visit the library for a flier, or go to the online calendar of events at ccclib.org.