Canis lupus literaris

Guest Post Joshua Spiert

Even for the best trainers, it would be difficult to teach a dog to read.  Then, if it did in fact learn, it would be hard to tell how much it really comprehended.  And how would something like a “4th grade reading level” translate to dog years?

That’s why children all over the country are going to libraries and helping out their canine pals by sharing such classics as Move Over, Rover! and The Hound of the Baskervilles.  They are spending quality time with some attentive, furry friends who won’t judge or correct them if they stumble on a word.  If the kids should increase their reading comprehension, that’s even better.

These aren’t just any mutts.  These are certified therapy dogs called Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ).  They must go through training to become therapy dogs before being allowed to handle the delicate matter of a child’s feelings.

There has been some debate over the true impact of dogs helping children learn to read.  Some are skeptical as to how much improvement in comprehension the program actually has.   Fonda Kendrick, Head of Youth Services at Sunbury’s Community Library, said she thinks it truly does help.

“I believe it takes the pressure off of the child as they read aloud, because the dog is just there as an observer, not as an evaluator, and they build confidence over time,” Kendrick said.  “Also, the synergy between the kids and the dogs is wonderful.”

The Community Library is one of the local libraries that offer the Read to a Dog program year-round.  It’s located just east of Alum Creek State Park.  The program began in the summer of 2008 with one reading dog team present, but has expanded since then.

“Last summer we expanded from one to two reading dog teams, and in November we started a once-a-month Read to a Dog session during the school year,” Kendrick said.

Since the program grew, they can now accommodate 18 kids during each hour and a half session.  There has been no shortage of readers, with available spots usually being completely filled.

Delaware County District Library has a similar program called Paws for Reading.  The Powell branch has had the same canine listener, Lucy, for almost two years.  It’s offered once a month there, while at the Delaware branch the program will begin in February and sessions will be every other weekend.  It has been a great success for Delaware.

“We always fill up right away,” said Children’s Specialist Kelly Cochran, who has worked there for a year.  “We’ve had several parents tell us they have seen a lot of improvement in their children’s confidence with reading.”

Cochran said that they would love to add Paws for Reading to the new Orange Township branch, which will be the closest branch to Acme Canine.  However, they still need to find a certified dog to fill that spot.

The Columbus Metropolitan Library was named 2010 Library of the Year by the Library Journal.  It has 21 branches sprawled across Columbus and its surrounding suburbs.  Over 2 million books and periodicals are in circulation.  In the past couple years, however, none have been read to a dog.  This is surprising for one of the consistently most used library systems in the country.

It is not anyone’s fault in particular.  Some CML branches used to offer the program, but there were none in 2009 or 2010 and none are scheduled for the upcoming year.  The extremely tight budget under which the library has been working could also have forced many smaller programs like this one to the backburner as the library system tried to keep all their regular hours and branches afloat.

“It hasn’t been as popular in the last several years, mainly because it is difficult to find the dogs to read to and to get the events coordinated,” said one representative from the CML.  “It is our hope that reading to dogs would help increase reading comprehension, we don’t have any way to prove this. What we do know is that the dogs provide motivation for kids to come to the library and to read books.”

Whether or not kids’ reading comprehension statistically improves, this program is still a positive experience for young readers.  They don’t care about studies or reading comprehension.  They just enjoy reading to a patient, attentive listener.

“I get to see kids coming back from week to week during the summer, so excited to visit the reading dog,” Kendrick said.  “I’m always happy to see them associating that excitement with the library and books!”

A trip to the library becomes a lot more exciting for children when a fun, affectionate friend is waiting there, tail wagging, happy to see them.

Acme Canine is starting a Canine Reading group to prepare dogs and their owners to help children read at the library.   Those interested in partnering with libraries and bookstores  can email dogs@acmecanine.com or contact this Lewis Center dog training facility by calling (740) 548-1717.