Trained dogs help young readers sharpen skills at Springdale library
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Children already know that reading is fundamental.
Now, they are discovering just how much fun it can be, especially when experienced with a furry friend.
Tail Waggin' Tutors, a national program of the volunteer organization Therapy Dogs International, pairs trained dogs with youngsters to help them develop confidence and fluency in their reading. The program debuted at Springdale Library last week to smiles and, from the animals, sighs of pleasure.
It will continue at 10 a.m. the third Saturday of the month until June, then resume in the fall.
With the animals at their side, children pet and read a story for 30 minutes to them, and the dogs listen patiently without judging the children's abilities, offering corrections or giggling at mistakes.
Research has shown that children grow in confidence and reading scores improve, says Cathy Ferrero of Cheswick, a library volunteer who proposed the undertaking for the Springdale Library.
She and Cimarron, her 2-year-old Sheltie volunteer, are in Therapy Dog International's Pittsburgh chapter, and regularly present Tail Waggin' Tutors' programs to libraries throughout the Pittsburgh area. “It's a wonderful and very popular program,” Ferrero says. “It is hard to tell who is more excited, the kids or the dogs.”
She has a feeling that the dogs know that, when they have on their official uniform of the red logo bandanas, their mission is to help the children. “The dogs often put their heads or paws in the children's lap as if to say, ‘I am here and it's all OK,' ” Ferrero says.
Children's librarian Shannon Shimko is happy that Springdale is hosting the undertaking. “I like the idea of partnering animals and children because, together, they usually accomplish great things,” she says.
A lot of the children taking part Saturday said that they had a great time reading with the dogs and they did not realize how fast the time went. “One little girl said she had never read a whole book before, let alone in just half an hour,” Shimko says. Retired French teacher Linda Brendlinger of Whitehall, director of Therapy Dogs International's Pittsburgh chapter, explains that Tail Waggin' Tutors can help “the very novice kindergarten reader,” and the older reader.
“For some families, it is an opportunity to expose their young children to well-behaved dogs and help them learn how to behave safely around them,” Brendlinger says.
Librarians and teachers she has talked to say they like this effort because it works. “Kids want to read. Kids behave so they can participate in the program,” she says. “I absolutely love hearing a young child say, ‘Can I have another turn reading?'” she says.
Since being certified in 2003, Brendlinger and Daisy, her almost-12-year-old Airedale terrier, have made more than 850 visits to libraries, schools, senior centers, hospitals and community centers for Tail Wagging' Tutors and other “emotional therapy” programs. “I love my dog and appreciate every opportunity to share her with others,” she says.
Children and dogs interacting positively together is always a happy sight, she says. “Seeing children reading to dogs is just plain wonderful.” It's “win-win” for the animals too, she adds.
“When they are at a Tail Waggin' Tutors program, they get to be out of the house with kids, listening to soft voices and being petted,” she says.
The dogs bring the best out of the children, Cheswick native Bill Hawse says. “My dog Rudy, a Goldendoodle (a poodle and golden retriever mix), adores the kids,” he says. “The dogs enjoy the programs as much as the kids do.”
Hawse, who lives in Level Green, and Rudy have been volunteers for three years, visiting a school every Monday. He says they enjoyed participating at the Springdale Library debut.
So did volunteer Lisa Anderson of Pine and Boomer, her Great Dane “who absolutely loves kids.”
“There is no better feeling than seeing someone's face light up because you brought your dog to visit them,” she says.
She is not surprised to hear that reading scores improve through Tail Waggin' Tutors. “The best way to get better at anything is to practice and build confidence,” she says, adding, this program provides that environment.
“Having the dogs there makes reading a little more exciting for the kids and gives them something to look forward to besides just practicing reading,” she says.
Shimko says Tail Waggin' Tutors can be the type of experience children need “for a little extra push to become the great readers that are hiding inside each of them.”
Currently, the Springdale effort is serving students in fourth through sixth grade. “Next school year, we are hoping to expand it to kindergarten through third-graders as well,” she says.
Pat Dietrich, a reading specialist at Colfax School in the Allegheny Valley School District, praises the program, which is part of the school's activity partnership with the library.
“It's a very relaxed scene, kids sitting and reading with a little doggie friend. Their friend is not going to judge them,” she says. “It's about kids feeling good about themselves as readers. I can see kids who read on a regular basis, whether it is to dogs, stuffed animals or themselves, improving because they have more contact with words and vocabulary.”
Jennifer Thompson of Springdale is confident Tail Waggin' Tutors will be beneficial for her daughter, Kaitlyn, 11, a sixth-grader at Colfax. “She likes reading, but is shy about reading out loud,” she says. Kaitlyn says she did not feel shy reading to Ramsey, the dog, at the library. “It was fun. I had a good time,” Kaitlyn says.
Colfax fourth-grader Bridget Kenney, 10, recommends that other kids try it. “I was shy reading at first at the library, but I got used to it after the middle of the story,” she says. She was surprised to learn there was an opportunity to read to dogs. “I think other students would enjoy it and not be shy anymore,” she says.
Sharon Arce of Cheswick believes that any reading experience is beneficial to children. “Adding a fun element like the dogs is a great opportunity for kids to be more comfortable, instead of reading before their peers. The dogs just sit there and listen,” says Arce, who teaches first grade in the Penn Hills School District.
Her daughter Alexis “Lexi” Arce, 10, is in the fourth-grade at Colfax and is a good reader, but wanted to take part in the library program “because it is a lot of fun. ... I like to read, and I like dogs,” she says. She read a chapter to Boomer. “I'm going to try to go back as often as I can.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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