A famous quote from an anonymous author states, "If you can read this, thank a teacher." But what if it said, "If you can read this, thank a...dog."
That's just what the people at the Blue Gray Therapy Dogs organization hope will transpire with their Paws for Reading program. The program allows children to read to a trained therapy dog during a 15-minute time block. After each session, the child gets a bookmark with the therapy dog's photo to commemorate their reading session and hopefully encourage good reading habits at home. The enthusiasm for this program has been overwhelming.
"It's a very positive program," says Sheryl Sinche, who works in the Central Rappahannock Regional Library children's division. "Kids get very excited to choose a book for the dogs. Some will choose girl-related books for girl dogs and 'boy' books for boy dogs."
The program has been available through the CRRL system since 2003. Now with over 50 teams in the Paws for Reading program, the program has expanded to Spotsylvania County Schools, as well as Hugh Mercer Elementary in the Fredericksburg City school district. The Paws teams are also invited to participate in other organized events such as Family Fun Day at the Spotsylvania Towne Centre, elementary schools' literacy nights and festivals. In September, the organization will have a Reading Corner at the Pet Expo.
Molly Termorshuizen, a reading specialist in Stafford, comments on the benefits of children reading to dogs. "Dogs are excellent listeners and they do not correct or interrupt! They give the children an opportunity to word solve on their own, increase their fluency and increase their confidence as readers."
Before a Certified Therapy Dog Team can become a Paws for Reading team, they must attend an orientation and successfully complete mentoring sessions, depending upon which venue —library or schools — in which they will volunteer. When they arrive, they bring a blanket or mat to define their reading space. This is also a signal to their canine partner that they will be "listening."
"They use their canine companion as a vehicle to help their reader better understand the story line or definition of a difficult word," says Gale Hollstein, Blue Gray Therapy Dogs Paws for Reading coordinator. "For instance, if the handler suspects that the child doesn't know what a certain word means, they may say that their dog 'Sally' doesn't understand that word and then tell 'Sally' the definition of the word. By using their canine partner in this way, it makes the reading session a positive and fun experience for the child.
"Not only do our dogs make a positive impact on the kids who read to them, but we, as volunteers, are rewarded with the knowledge that we have contributed in some small way to the academic success of these children and hopefully have encouraged a lifelong love of reading."
Kerry Pinto is a freelance writer living in Stafford.