Tail-wagging tutors: New therapy dog reading program is turning pages

February 18, 2012 3:05:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


"Oh, look! This one is about a gorilla and a kitten," chimed Emma Tally to her furry companion. The 5-year-old sat cross-legged on a plump pillow on the library reading room floor. With small hands, she held up her big book, all the better for her four-legged friend to see. Turning to the first page, young Emma was soon eagerly sharing the story with Roscoe, the therapy dog. Roscoe, to all appearances, absorbed every word. 


Patrons at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library Tuesday may have been surprised to see dogs among the stacks, but it's all part of an innovative project called "Read to Roscoe and Sampson." It's also part of a growing nationwide trend of utilizing dogs in libraries to increase reading skills in children, some of whom may be reluctant or struggling readers. 


Building on Library Director Alice Shands' and Deputy Director Erin Stringers' desire to explore starting a program in Columbus, Youth Services Coordinator Lindsey Miller researched similar initiatives in other libraries. 


The LaGrange Library in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for example, started a reading dog program in 2008 and reported great success. Benefits included increased comfort reading aloud, improved reading skills, boosts in confidence and even reduced absenteeism. Parents also praised the overall sense of fun in reading their children seemed to gain from interaction with the dogs. 


A study published by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found that students who read to dogs had better outcomes than students who read to humans. They experienced a slight gain in reading ability and had positive attitudes toward reading. Especially noteworthy was that there was no attrition in the group who read to dogs, while one-third of those reading to humans failed to complete the program. 


Shands said, "A therapy dog makes a great reading buddy, encouraging children to read by providing a nonjudgmental listener that won't laugh at them if they make a mistake or stumble over a word." 


"The library is very excited about this new program," stated Miller. "Encouraging literacy in the community is extremely important, and that starts with our children." 




'One of the best  


things ... ' 


On Tuesday, certified therapy dogs Roscoe, a smooth-coat border collie mix, and Sampson, a black Labrador, made their second visit to the reading room. They were escorted by their owners, Nina Ferrante and Brenda Holcombe. 


The canine pals were dressed for success, on leashes and wearing their therapy dog vests. Embroidered patches gave helpful hints like "I am friendly. Please ask to pet me." 


As children read, the dogs lay quietly nearby. With a quizzical tilt of the head or flick of an ear, they expressed their interest. 


"That was really, really fun," said a satisfied Emma, after closing her book. "I really like how the dogs sat very still and listened." 


Her older brother nodded. 


"It was great. It was one of the best things I've ever done," said 7-year-old Gabe Tally, still holding Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go" he had just read to Sampson. 


Their mother, Addie Tally, brings Emma, Gabe and their brother Wallace to the local library every week as a treat and feels the new program is another way the library becomes an exciting place in her children's eyes. 


"I love it," she said of the therapy dog project. "I think it'll be easier to keep them interested in reading." 




Special animals 


Children won't be the only beneficiaries of "Read to Roscoe and Sampson." Owners Ferrante and Holcombe look forward to it, too. They're part of a network of caring individuals willing to share their special canines. Both view volunteering their time to bring the dogs and sit with them as children read as a fulfilling way to give back. 


"I can see where this can be a wonderful program," enthused Holcombe, who knew she wanted to somehow volunteer in the community even before retiring from a 25-year career at Columbus High School. "I love this, I truly do," she said of introducing Sampson to others who benefit from connecting with animals. 


Roscoe, Sampson and their humans are well-known in the nursing home community, particularly at Trinity Place Healthcare, where they drop in every Thursday. The dogs' visits are much-anticipated, often triggering residents' fond memories and stories of pets they've loved. 


Ferrante, a Friends of the Library board member, is a retired psychotherapist. She's particularly attuned to the interactions.  


"I thought Roscoe would be a good therapist, too," she smiled. 




All shapes and sizes 


Therapy dogs come in all breeds and sizes. They have earned their American Kennel Club Good Canine Citizen certificate and then undergone specific training and testing. Calm demeanors, obedience and friendliness to strangers are among requirements. Like Roscoe and Sampson, therapy dogs must be patient and confident in all situations and content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.  


Those trademark qualities were on display in the reading room, as children read and parents looked on. 


"I think this program will be great," said Ashley DeLellis, mother of 6-year-old Grady DeLellis. "My son is shy about reading out loud, and I think this will be so good for the kids." 


As the session came to an end, readers and parents gave final pats to the dogs, and thanks to Ferrante and Holcombe for bringing them.  


Miller summed up, "We really hope this will become a valuable literacy resource for parents looking to provide their children with extra practice in reading outside of school hours."  


If all goes as expected, reading with Rover -- or, in this case, Roscoe and Sampson -- could begin new chapters for everyone involved.  




To participate 


The therapy dog reading program is available by appointment in 30-minute time slots, preferably on weekdays. For more information, contact Miller at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, 314 Seventh St. N., 662-329-5300.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.