With book in hand, enjoying the dog days of summer

Last modified: 8/13/2013 8:06:25 AM
Lately you may have noticed a sign posted outside our public library here in Francestown which informs the public at large that during the month of July your child may participate in the “Reading with Riley” program. It also mentions that Riley is a dog — and yes, I did just say “dog.”

Some people upon learning that Riley is a dog may believe that one of the most cherished institutions in American culture has absolutely “gone to the dogs.” And just the mere thought of allowing canines to even pass through those library doors, let alone allowing a dog to be part of a reading program being promoted within its hallowed halls, may be enough to make their hackles stand on end.

For others the concept of reading with, or more precisely reading to a therapy dog may seem like such a novel idea as to be almost ludicrous. But once we move beyond the initial shock of letting the dogs into our public libraries, it all begins to make perfect sense should we take it one step further and allow the idea to percolate for a bit. It is then that for many of us an image forms of a young child reading to an attentive dog in an almost iconic Norman Rockwell setting — and we “see” in our mind’s eye American culture at its best and most innocent. All of a sudden the novel idea no longer seems ludicrous — and because our librarians were so receptive to the idea, it becomes but one of the many programs available at the George Holmes Bixby Memorial Library designed for children to encourage a lifelong love of reading.

The theory behind using therapy dogs for reading programs in our schools and libraries came about “…in late 1999 when the Salt Lake City Public Library began offering ‘Dog Day Afternoons’ to kids ages four to 11 featuring six dogs. Sandi Martin, a critical care nurse and board member of Intermountain Therapy Animals, originated the program, which brought certified therapy dogs into the public library who had previously worked in hospital rehab programs. The program quickly expanded to area elementary schools and can now be found nationwide.”

It comes as no surprise to those of us who own a caring canine that these therapy dog reading programs have rapidly grown in number because we recognize that sweet natured dogs and children are a natural fit. For most kids dogs are like magnets; so much so that as parents we are compelled to teach our children for their own safety to ask permission before they run up to and begin hugging a strange dog. And thus the use of trained and certified therapy dogs which have been tested in a variety of different scenarios to ensure they can handle the exuberance of children is absolutely essential and a key element in any program utilizing the novel presence of a dog to promote and encourage reading in our public libraries and schools.

These reading programs may begin to make even more sense if as a child you had an anxious moment or two when you were asked to read aloud in the classroom, or as an adolescent or young adult when you were required to give an oral presentation to your peers. Even as mature adults, some of us dread public speaking no matter how often we have been placed in a position where it is an absolute necessity and despite the fact that we do it successfully each and every time. Even seasoned performers occasionally experience stage fright — therefore, although some of us have never personally experienced the stress and anxiety associated with being the center of attention when it appears the whole world is watching and listening, we all realize how uncomfortable it can be for others. And it is when this very human phenomenon interferes with reading that being able to read one on one to a non-judgmental therapy dog may prove to be quite helpful.

Those of us lucky enough to have dogs in our lives, have personally experienced this calming effect when our world is a bit topsy-turvy and our best buddy is suddenly by our side and looking at us with its soulful eyes. It is at this point we understand and acknowledge each professional, valid and reliable study that has shown time and again that “interactions with therapy dogs can increase oxytocin (bonding) and dopamine (happiness), while lowering cortisol (stress).” And as a result, it seems perfectly logical that utilizing certified therapy dogs in a number of different venues to lower blood pressure, help alleviate stress, and provide a bit of happiness, if only for a little while, is becoming more prevalent and is another invaluable tool when used in conjunction with other tried and tested programs. Therefore it follows quite logically that therapy dog reading programs in our libraries and schools may also become that one additional and useful tool to provide our young residents with a unique and novel opportunity to practice their reading and comprehension skills, share their interests, while simultaneously boosting their ability and confidence in reading as well.

Here at the George Holmes Bixby Memorial Library in Francestown, “Reading with Riley” is solely based on a child’s interest in sharing a great book with a gentle dog and it is but one of the many “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” programs sponsored by Therapy Dogs International throughout the United States and Canada. Each “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” program is specifically “designed to encourage children to read by providing a non-judgmental listener and furry friend.” Because “Reading with Riley” was designed as a library program and not a school program, there are no pretests or posttests to assess the reading level of those participating.

But despite the lack of standardized testing to assess progress, most individuals who participate are much more likely to be receptive to learning and practicing new and/or difficult skills — especially when the audience consists solely of a gentle certified therapy dog and its handler. And, although each one of these programs is uniquely designed to suit the needs of the library personnel, the volunteer therapy dog team, and the community at large, all programs have in common the basic premise and philosophy set forth by Therapy Dogs International.

“Children and dogs bond over a shared story. Therapy dogs give children the encouragement they need to read aloud because it is so much fun to read to a patient therapy dog. Children are introduced to the wonderful, magical world of books in a positive and unique way. The child’s confidence and skills grow in this relaxing environment. It’s that simple.”

In a 2005 speech on literacy and education to members of the American Library Association by President Barack Obama while commending them on their many innovative programs encouraging children to visit their public libraries, our current president stated:

“The moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold into a library, we’ve changed their lives forever, and for the better. Libraries represent more than a building that houses books and data, the library has always been a window to a larger world — a place where we’ve always come to discover big ideas and profound concepts that help move the American story forward. Education is still the foundation of this opportunity. And the most basic building block that holds that foundation together is still reading. At the dawn of the 21st century, in a world where knowledge truly is power and literacy is the skill that unlocks the gates of opportunity and success, we all have a responsibility as parents and librarians, educators and citizens, to instill in our children a love of reading so that we can give them a chance to fulfill their dreams.”

So although my parents never had the time necessary to add a dog into our large and very busy family, throughout our lives they always made the time to instill and encourage a lifelong love of books by first reading to us when we were very small, then smiling with much pride as we began to read on our own. And they too were the first people responsible for my initial introduction to the wonderful world of books available at our public library. Each time I walked through the library doors as a youngster I felt as though a whole world awaited me among the thousands of books to choose from on those library shelves — and I still feel that way today. Hopefully Riley might help make that happen for at least one of our young residents when they cross the threshold of the George Holmes Bixby Memorial Library here in Francestown now that our amazing librarians have let the dogs in.

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.


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