Reading dogs are nothing new - children sign up to read stories to therapy dogs in the safe, comfortable setting of a library. These programs have been around for years, and come with a variety of fun names, designed to garner interest. Whether you call your program Barks & Books, Tales for Tails, or Read to Rover, it could be a great way to help reluctant readers gain confidence and enjoyment in reading.
WHY TO DO IT
In 2010, the University Of California - Davis completed a study on reading dog programs, which found that readers who participated in a 10-week schedule of reading to dogs increased their confidence and reading skills, as compared to children who did not participate. (Why? Practice makes perfect, and dogs - while lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels, which cause stress - don't judge!)
Anecdotal evidence supports this claim, with stories of children who didn’t enjoy reading becoming excited to read to their canine friends. By hosting programs that cater to reluctant readers, libraries also reach a population that otherwise would be incredibly resistant to visiting the library, and introduce them to the joys of lifelong learning, and the wealth of things the library has to offer. In addition, since therapy dogs and their handlers work on a volunteer basis, this is a free program that practically guarantees attendance!
HOW TO GET STARTED
Chances are, there are libraries in your area that have run a successful reading dog program, and your best bet may be to reach out to them to find out the best volunteer organizations in your area. Some organizations are dedicated to reading animals specifically, while others certify only dogs. The Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) specialize in therapy dogs, whereas Pet Partners, which operate nationwide, includes many types of animals, including dogs, cats, and rabbits.
In many libraries, Read To A Dog programs will have 15-minute appointments that children can sign up for, which gives them personalized time with the dog. Appointments should be held in a secluded area or closed room if possible; having an audience may be an issue for children with reading issues. In addition, this helps mitigate issues with allergies and dog phobias.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
In order to be therapy certified, dogs must pass a number of tests and be able to handle stressful certifications. (While specific guidelines may vary by organization, it is common for the pets to need to be able to handle a number of commands, hear loud noises without reacting, and deal with large crowds.)
Most organizations will, with certification, insure their dogs in case there is an issue (unlikely as that is). You may want to check with your town to make sure you don't need any additional insurance. Handlers also are required to be present with their animal at all times, and the pet must always be on a leash. Please be sure that all library rules are clearly spelled out with the therapy team before appointments are made, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
If the idea of having live animals in your library is uncomfortable or simply not possible, reach out to your local animal shelter and see if they would be willing to host library readers. Some shelters look for volunteers to help socialize their animals, and pairing children with these animals could be a beneficial partnership for everybody involved.