Dedicated to beagle butt, who attended over 50 therapy dog reading programs and helped dozens of children be comfortable around dogs.
This week, a news story went viral about a therapy dog reading program in Minnesota. One of the dogs in the program, named Sting, didn’t have anybody read to him at one of the events, so his owner posted a Facebook picture encouraging kids to come out and read, and now everybody wants to come out and read to a dog. These therapy dog reading programs are awesome, and I was able to not only be a participant for many years as a child, but I also was inspired to train my own therapy dog. Today I will be sharing why therapy dog reading programs are awesome and the benefits of attending them.
A therapy dog is a companion dog that is certified by an organization, such as Petsmart Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. Owners go through the training with their personal dogs, and once the training is complete, the owner/dog team is tested by certified trainers. If they pass, then they can go to pre-approved visits at places such as nursing homes, hospitals, women’s shelters, schools, respite care, libraries, and more- anywhere the love of the dog can brighten someone’s day. They are not service dogs, and people cannot randomly bring therapy dogs places without prior approval.
Therapy dog reading programs are free events where handlers donate their time and bring their dogs to libraries or another venue. Everyone sits on the floor and then kids can come in and read books, either from the library or from home, to read to the dog of their choice. It is encouraged that they read to more than one dog, maybe reading one short book or chapter to each one. While reading, kids are welcome to pet the dogs too.
While library programs often provide books for the program, people are welcome to bring in books from home or other areas of the library, as long as the books are checked out first. Braille and large print books are certainly welcome at these programs, as are digital books read on an iPad or similar device. Read more about eReaders and low vision here, and read a post from the Perkins School For The Blind blog, Paths to Technology, on digital picture books here.
I found that a lot of the library books were blurry or difficult to read because of my low vision. I loved writing my own stories and illustrating them at home, so when I was five, I started to bring my original stories from home in a backpack to read to the dogs. As I got older, I switched to carrying short stories in a binder with colored text so I could read it easier. Little did I know, I lifted an accessibility barrier for myself and was able to really improve my writing.
It’s easy to get anxious when reading out loud over whether a sentence flows or if all words are pronounced correctly. Dogs don’t care about word pronunciation, so kids feel more comfortable reading, often ignoring that the handler is there. Kids also may be more likely to pick difficult books if they know they won’t be judged for their reading skills.
Studies show that petting dogs can help with decreasing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Whenever I worked with someone who was anxious about reading, I would encourage them to pet my dog for a few minutes so that they could calm down and feel more at ease. It helped a lot, and I often had kids who would go find another book so they could keep reading.
Therapy dog reading programs are often a way to educate kids on dog breeds and how to interact with dogs. Since therapy dogs are trained and certified to be calm around people, they can serve as a great introduction to kids about how to interact with dogs and practice skills like letting a dog sniff hands before petting, gentle petting, and avoiding pulling on tails or ears. Read more about how people with low vision can interact with dogs here.
When I was nine years old, my dog and I were certified by Therapy Dogs International and I joined a youth therapy dog group. While in the group, my mom and I helped to start a therapy dog reading program for the youth group, since I knew the benefits of the program from years of attending the adult group. We began our program at a library and then did story time events at our local bookstore and afterschool programs. Being a handler at these events helped me learn to interact with kids, talk about dogs, and I also got to listen to lots of great children’s books- my favorite was the Fancy Nancy book where she gets a dog.
There are several ways to find a therapy dog reading program near you. I recommend checking your local library’s calendar of events, running a web search about therapy programs in your area, or talking to your school. If there is no therapy dog program near you, suggest that your library start one.
Some common names for programs include:
Therapy dog reading programs are so much fun, and I glad I had the opportunity to not only attend them, but also help start one of my own in my youth therapy dog group. I highly recommend going to the program at least once- it’s a “doggone” great time!