When it comes to learning, libraries around the country are steadily discovering that a dog can teach patrons, young and old, a few tricks.
The Oshkosh Public Library in Wisconsin is offering a “Read to a Dog” program to improve children’s literacy skills. It is is open to children of all ages and takes place in 20 minute blocks.
Sandy Joseph, Oshkosh Public Library children’s librarian told LJ, “It is unbelievably motivating. I am amazed at how well they read after five or six times. That’s what the research is saying: five to six consecutive visits will raise them two reading levels.“
She was quoted in The Northwestern as saying, “Children who are nervous and self-conscious about reading aloud often feel very comfortable reading to a dog. The dog isn’t judgmental or intimidating, so it boosts the child’s confidence, they forget about their limitations and their reading skills improve.”
The research bears her out: a studyat Tufts University found that students who read to dogs have better outcomes than students who read to humans. They experienced a slight gain in reading ability and attitudes toward reading, while those who read to people experienced a decrease on both measures. Even more noticeable, there was no attrition in the dog group, while one third of those reading to humans failed to complete the program.
This is far from the first time that dogs and libraries have made unlikely, but effective, partners. College libraries such as the University of Connecticut, M.I.T., Yale Law School and the University of San Diego have brought in therapy dogs during finals to reduce the stress of studying.
Uconn’s program is particularly large. “ I think it is probably unique in its size and perhaps length,“ Library Reserve Services Coordinator Jo Ann Reynolds told LJ. The program, which has been running since Spring 2010, runs for a full week during finals in both spring and fall semesters, and includes 20-25 dogs making 30-35 visits each.
“We have almost continuous coverage with dogs from 10 in the morning until 8 at night,” Reynolds said. “Everybody comes up and says you don’t know what this means to me, thank you for doing this.”
In Oshkosh, the dogs are trained through the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. There is no cost libraries to participate (or to schools, which also host the animal and handler pairs). The R.E.A.D. program was founded by Intermountain Therapy Animals in 1999. Today it has almost 2,000 registered teams, covering the U.S., three Canadian provinces, Europe and elsewhere.
For those with safety concerns, to be registered, dog owners must join an animal assisted therapy group, which provides insurance as well as some training. They must also read the manual, watch a three part video and complete an application and written test. Dogs use a dander remover to reduce allergic reactions, though the program remains unsuitable for children with severe allergies or asthma.
Oshkosh embarked on the program because a local volunteer, Marcie Wilson, learned of R.E.A.D. in Minnesota. Wilson checks on the licensing and coordinates much of the program. Joseph says the program serves children aged three to nine or ten, and the dogs serve the additional function of face saving. “They do have trouble reading but they can use the excuse that they love dogs. It lacks the stigma, ” she explains.
The UConn library spends about $200 per year to run the program, which goes for clean up supplies and thank you goodie bags for the visiting dogs and their volunteer handlers. Reynolds, like Joseph, said the library has had no trouble with allergic reactions so far, and emphasized the importance of the dogs being certified.