Learning to Read One Dog at a Time Story
by Bella Wexler | Photo by Natalie Mast
We’ve all been told at some point in our lives that the best way to overcome anxiety towards public speaking is to envision our audience naked. But, what if your audience isn’t wearing any clothes in the first place and, instead, sports a coat of soft fur, a pair of floppy ears, and a wet nose – perfect for sniffing out a good book? As many children in Tucson are finding out, reading to dogs at Pima County Library locations is the best method of practicing their literary skills.
The Read to a Dog program currently takes place one hour per week at fifteen of the twenty-six Pima County Public Libraries. Young readers and their families are welcome to stop by any of the participating locations, at the times specified on their website, to pick out a good book and read to a certified therapy dog. Each canine friend is brought by a dedicated organization: Alliance of Therapy Dogs, The Humane Society of Southern Arizona Pet VIP, Pet Partners, or Therapy Dogs International.
A typical Friday afternoon at the Dusenberry-River library involves tables filled with picture books, eager children and families waiting for a turn to read, two or more friendly dogs in the center of the room, and welcoming library staff. Included among these staff members is Children Services Librarian of five years, Annie Wicks, who oversees this location’s Read to a Dog program. As visitors file in on four legs or two, Annie walks over to introduce herself to any new faces, seamlessly integrating them into this welcoming environment. Annie always remembers regular visitors, and cares about getting to know each newcomer, making that hour between 3:30 and 4:30 every Friday a safe and encouraging time.
Some readers are regular participants who come every week. For example, Kai and Mina have been coming each Friday like clockwork because they love finding new books and meeting new people. Kai proudly reports that, “we’ve already met two friends!” Mina and Kai both enjoy reading by themselves while they wait to read to Lady or Aida, two of the four therapy dogs who take turns attending this event (the other two are Lily and Missy).
Some readers are brand new to the program. Annie invites newcomers to take part in crafts and pick out books, ensuring that they understand the process as well as any regular visitor. Sisters, Evelyn and Charlee say that they especially loved reading to Lady during their first visit because “she is soft” and they “can pet her.” The two plan to read plenty of funny books and chapter books this summer to their dog at home, in addition to the dogs at the library. After all, Charlee says that dogs are her favorite animals, “because they give me kisses and I’m an expert.”
Another child, Sylvan, enjoyed his first time reading to Aida at the Dusenberry and River library. Sylvan has participated at other library locations in the past. He shared that he truly enjoys this program because the dogs are “very tolerant with kids.” His mom, Audrey, believes in the benefits of providing young readers like her son with a “non intimidating audience” like these cuddly canines.
Similarly, another reader said that she loves how the dogs “just sit there and listen” to readers. She says that the experience was “very therapeutic” because the dogs provided a peaceful and fun environment where, “I don’t have a feeling of judgment.”
In addition to being excellent audiences, these therapy dogs put on some exciting performances themselves. Lady in particular loved to show off some fun tricks while readers, Charlee and Evelyn giggled in amusement. Of course, Lady’s favorite trick is to play dead because that’s how she gets the most belly rubs.
When the clock struck 4:30, the happy families and little readers filed out, and Annie Wicks reflected on her experiences over her years with this program. She said that the most rewarding part is hearing so many stories from parents about how their children dreaded reading until they began attending the Read to a Dog program. But, beyond just hearing this, Annie gets to watch it happen. She has witnessed children go from sounding out words to reading sentences with fluency, all because their excitement about the opportunity to read to dogs makes them eager to practice reading throughout the week.
“It attaches positive experiences to something difficult and potentially frustrating for kids to learn,” Wicks says. In the hopes that other families will explore this wonderful program, Annie encourages people to check the Pima County Public Library website to learn about the varying times and days this program takes place at different locations. Until then, perhaps we should stop envisioning our audiences naked, and instead try picturing a crowd of welcoming dogs like Aida and Lady or, better yet, go practice our speaking skills in front of dogs ourselves.