Good Dog. Sit. Listen.

Therapy dogs help youngsters overcome their reluctance to read

July 15, 2010


Christopher, a bubbly 7-year-old, has come to the La Mesa branch of San Diego County (Calif.) Library to read to Sunny. With book in hand, Christopher sits down and begins. As he reads, he and Sunny cuddle together. Sunny, an 80-pound collie, is a certified therapy dog and with his handler, Gloria Laube, he visits the library twice a month to listen to kids read.

Sunny and his handler are a part of the Read to Your Breed program, which encourages and assists struggling readers. Over the course of five years, Sunny has been read to in English, Spanish, French, and Italian. Laube is such a strong believer in this program and others like it that she has started a website dedicated to encouraging therapy dog reading programs. Laube’s website “is a resource for public and school librarians, teachers, and bookstore managers who are interested in exploring the idea of using specially trained dogs in their reading programs.”

While many libraries around the country offer therapy dog reading sessions, some hesitate to allow dogs in the library, due to fears of the dogs being messy or misbehaving. But therapy dog handlers are trained on proper behavior and dog grooming, and they are aware of the necessity for the dogs to remain on a leash at all times and that they must sit on a blanket or rug. Libraries that offer therapy dog programs only allow certified therapy dogs to participate because these dogs are tested to ensure they have a temperament that is calm and that they are safe to be around children. And all certified therapy dogs come with an insurance policy.

Therapy dog programs provide a safe and nurturing environment for beginning and struggling readers. Children often feel more comfortable reading to a furry four-legged friend than a parent or teacher because dogs are perceived as being a non-critical audience. According to Laube, “some children pet Sunny each time they turn a page. Petting dogs has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce stress, so this physical interaction serves a valuable purpose while giving the children extra practice with their reading skills.” Christopher likes reading to Sunny because “he really looks like he is listening to the book.”

Christopher’s mother has seen positive effects of the Read to Your Breed program and says it “has given Christopher a sense of confidence that he may not have otherwise gotten by just reading to a grown-up.” Laube has also seen children “become more confident readers as well as develop more self-confidence socially. Some children who would barely whisper were reading normally after a few weeks.”

Janet Gastil, children’s librarian at the Lakeside branch of San Diego County Library, offers a program called PAWS to Read and has noticed that kids of all ages are excited to read to a dog. Gastil says that in her program it is the struggling readers who are the most eager to read to a dog and “anytime you can get a kid who doesn’t usually want to read excited to read, that is a success.”

ANNA HARTMAN is children’s librarian at the La Mesa branch of San Diego County (Calif.) Library and supervisor of the branch’s therapy dog reading program. Her presentation on therapy dogs from the 2010 Public Library Association conference in Portland is online here.