You may have seen news clips or online photos of children reading to animals. Many libraries across the nation have implemented a “Read to the Dog” program, in which children and therapy dogs spend time together at the library, with the children reading to the dogs. But, did you know there are also programs in animal shelters in which children read to the shelter’s residents, cats or dogs? These programs have multiple benefits: helping children improve their reading skills, helping socialize shelter pets, and developing stronger human-animal bonds for both pets and people.
The Animal Rescue League of Berks County in Pennsylvania started a Book Buddies program in 2013. Through this endeavor, children in grades 1 through 8 who can read at any level can come to the shelter during regular business hours and read to the cats available for adoption. According to the organization’s website, “the program will help children improve their reading skills while also helping the shelter animals by providing socialization and human interaction. Cats find the rhythmic sound of a voice very comforting and soothing.”
Many literacy experts say children feel more relaxed and less self-conscious reading to animals than reading in front of their peers, to a teacher, or with their parents. Pets and children go together like peanut butter and jelly – mingling and mixing and enjoying one another, all the while improving kids’ reading skills and providing socialization and connection with animals.
In my state of Wyoming, the Sheridan County Library offers a Read-to-the-Dog program several days a week, and north in Montana, the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena also provides such a paw-some service. Children of different ages and reading levels can come and read to a certified therapy dog.
In Salt Lake City, Intermountain Therapy Animals offers a Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, also called R.E.A.D. This program uses already registered therapy dogs and their handlers and trains them to work as a team to improve child literacy. The human-dog teams can go into schools, be at libraries, and visit other settings to serve as reading companions for children.
My dog Mary and I have visited libraries in our area off and on for the past few years. Although we haven’t been part of a Read to the Dog program, we have conducted programs about pet adoption and rescue (my husband and I adopted Mary in 2013 from English Springer Spaniel Rescue), and I have read to children from my various books while Mary sat quietly near my audience and they petted and loved on her. I’m happy to share my sweet Mary with these little ones who hug her, pet her, and talk to her. And her wagging stub of a tail assures me she loves the attention lavished upon and by her!
March is Paws to Read Month, a reminder that children and pets share a special bond, and that implementing a library or shelter program by which children can read to animals either in school, at the library, or at the local animal shelter benefits both kids and pets. If your local library or animal shelter doesn’t have such a program, perhaps you can be the catalyst to help start one. Speak to your shelter’s director or board, speak to your children’s librarian or the library director. Tell them about some of these programs in place around the country. Be an advocate for children’s literacy, therapy animals, and shelter pets, helping benefit kids and animals simultaneously.
Gayle M. Irwin is a writer and public relations professional who volunteers with various animal rescue groups. She enjoys sharing her books and her passion for pets and the environment with others.