By Kelly Burch
---- — On a snowy Saturday morning, a 7-year-old makes her way into the Memorial Hall Library, eager to listen to some stories.
Mira isn’t your typical library patron, however. For starters, she has four legs and is very interested in sniffing the books. Plus, when she likes what she hears, her short tail wags.
“Sometimes she looks at the pictures, but mostly she likes to listen,” says Mira’s handler Gian Schauer.
Mira, a cocker spaniel-poodle mix, will be doing lots of listening today. She is at the library for the Andover B.A.R.K.S. program, which stands for “Books and Reading for Kids.”
Mira is a trained therapy dog who will listen as elementary-aged kids practice reading aloud to her. Although it may sound crazy, programs like this are gaining traction across the country, as educators recognize the benefits children reap from reading to dogs.
“People think it’s silly to have a dog in the library,” Schauer said. “But it honestly brings the kids to another level. They experience the fun of reading, and learn how to tell a story and how to enjoy reading.”
“I am the alpha dog, and what I say goes,” 8-year-old Grace Jungmann reads to Mira.
Jungmann arrived at the library early to choose a book that would be suitable for a dog. She ended up with “Martha Speaks,” a popular book about a dog that eats alphabet soup in order to be able to talk.
However, if the research is correct, Jungmann will benefit from today’s reading session much more than Mira. A 2010 study conducted by Tufts University showed that second-graders who read aloud to dogs over summer vacation increased their reading skills, while their classmates who read aloud to people lost reading skills during the same period. Although it isn’t clear why reading aloud to dogs helps improve literacy, the results clearly show a benefit.
“Kids are very excited about the program,” said Jeanne Brouillette, the founder of Dog B.O.N.E.S. Therapy Dogs, which trains reading partner dogs. “It does exactly what it is supposed to do: encourage kids to want to read. The goal is to get them to learn without realizing it.”
Brouillette began training reading dogs more than seven years ago. At the time, she was involved with therapy dog programs and noticed many people in the programs wanted to do more visits with children. As Brouillette’s golden retriever, Bentley, became more and more popular with children in the community, Brouillette realized there was a need for reading partner dogs that was not being filled.
“I thought, ‘Why not let kids read to dogs?’” she recalled. “The dog provides unconditional support and doesn’t say anything when you make a mistake. I said to Bentley, ‘You and I are going to have to do this.’ And from there it grew and grew.”
Now Brouillette oversees a number of dog and handler reading teams that visit schools and libraries. Before participating in the reading program, a dog must become a certified therapy dog. The dog must also love children -- and attention.
“Most kids can’t resist wrapping their hands around a dog,” Brouillette said. “Kids pull the dog’s tail, and ears, so we need an extraordinarily calm, family-owned pet.”
Once the dog passes its tests, its handler must participate in a overview of the reading program.
“We address what to help with, and what is out of reach,” Brouillette said.
In libraries, most children participate in the program for the novelty of it.
“It’s just a fun gig, to get them excited about literacy and to build interest in reading,” Brouillette said.
Handlers in the library may help children if they want it, but the program is mainly focused on getting kids into the library and getting them reading.
In school programs, young readers often are working to improve specific skills, such as sight-word recognition, or vocabulary. In that case, handlers must be able to take direction from the teacher, and guide the reader toward those goals, Brouillette said.
When Matt Jacobs, an 11th-grader at Phillips Academy, heard how reading to dogs can increase children’s literacy, he was impressed. One of his mother’s friends volunteers with her reading therapy dog, and as Jacobs learned more about her work, he became increasingly interested in bringing the opportunity to more children. Last summer Jacobs, 16, began an informal study of this own.
“I started the program with neighborhood kids and my own dog. And it worked really well,” he said.
With that success reassuring him of the benefits of therapy dogs, Jacobs was inspired to begin the B.A.R.K.S program at the libraries.
“I love kids, and I love dogs,” Jacobs said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Jacobs was put in touch with Dog B.O.N.E.S., which agreed to provide therapy dogs to the B.A.R.K.S. Program.
In August, Jacobs spoke to a number of area libraries about hosting the program. He received the most interest from Andover and Reading, where he has run the B.A.R.K.S. programs monthly since October. Jacobs estimates that about 50 children have come to the libraries for their turn to read to the therapy dog for 15 minutes.
Andover B.A.R.K.S. has become so popular that next month Jacobs plans to bring in another set of furry, floppy ears to listen.
“It’s full every time,” said Kim Bears, a children’s librarian at Memorial Hall Library. “I get so excited when it’s on my Saturday (to work). It’s good for all.”
When a rare opening happens during the morning, Bears approaches brothers Christopher and Alex Grondin, who are reading independently in the children’s room.
“I thought she was joking when she asked if I wanted to read to a dog,” says Alex, 10.
Both boys enjoy the spur-of-the-moment experience.
“It was a little silly. Why would a dog want to listen?” asks Christopher, 12. “But when we started reading she calmed right down and liked it.”
Researchers are unsure why reading to a dog rather than a person is such a successful way to improve reading skills. However, it is thought that the dog provides a non-judgmental audience, while encouraging children to sound out words on their own.
“The dog doesn’t correct them,” said Bears, the librarian. “Adults can be intimidating. With the dog, kids just get to be comfortable.”
Schauer, Mira’s handler, sees another reason that reading to dogs improves literacy.
“Kids take it very seriously,” she said. “They respond to Mira’s level of understanding, and I think they understand that they are sharing this skill, reading, with someone who can’t read.”
Schauer believes that children recognize that this is an important task, and are therefore much more focused on reading. She notices that many children will come to the library ahead of time to pick a book that they think is suitable for a dog, and most pick a book about canines.
“I’ve even had kids ask me if it’s O.K. that there is a cat in a book,” she said.
Parents and children agree that the program is a fun and unique way to encourage reading.
“(Grace) has just started reading aloud to herself, so we want to keep that going,” said Steven Jungmann, whose daughter had just finished reading to Mira. “This is another chance to practice those skills.”
“I love dogs, and I love to read,” she said.
She discovered that even the most patient audience has its challenges. “The dog did sit on my book though.”
How Does it Work? No one knows for sure why reading aloud to a dog is such an effective way to build literacy in young children. It is thought that the dog provides a non-judgmental, pressure-free audience, which increases children's confidence. How to Get Your Dog Involved "A reading therapy dog has to be the most laid back dog," said Dog B.O.N.E.S founder Jeanne Brouillette. "They need to be obedient, and can't have any fear, or anxiety." Think your pooch has what it takes? Get more information at www.therapydog.info, or contact Dog B.O.N.E.S. Therapy Dogs at firstname.lastname@example.org. How to Participate If your child is in kindergarten through grade three and would like to participate in the Andover B.A.R.K.S. Program, contact the Memorial Hall Library children's room at 978-623-8401, or check online for upcoming dates, at www.mhl.org/kids/programs.