Therapy dog takes anxiety out of reading

(Photo by Alen Fetahi)

(Photo by Alen Fetahi)

Two Saturdays a month, on a couch in a corner of the library, you’ll find a 10-pound furry bundle, happily snuggled on a warm lap, with children taking turns reading to her.

Zoey, a three-and-a-half-year-old black toy poodle, with a white beard and pompom tail, is a tail waggin’ tutor. And while the kids may think it’s just a fun day at the library, what she’s doing is actually a very serious and important job.

I adopted Zoey from the Ulster County SPCA in 2013 and she quickly went from shelter dog to certified therapy dog. Ironically, she was not the dog I originally chose. After seeing her brother at an adoption event at the Farmer’s Market, I went to the shelter with the idea of bringing him home. When I met him though, this perfectly groomed dog ignored me, and even turned his back on me in the kennel. His sister, however, who was a scraggly, matted bundle of fur, was doing everything she could to get me to notice her. After only a few minutes of her repeatedly trying to get in my lap and giving kisses to desperately get my attention, I realized my next therapy dog had in fact, chosen me.

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My first dog, Lady, had been a therapy dog. I took her to nursing homes and hospitals. At the time, there were no library programs in the area. Dogs in libraries was a fairly new program. I had read about “tail waggin’ tutors” and had always hoped that my next dog would be suitable as a reading dog.

I promptly enrolled Zoey in basic obedience classes and then into a class held specifically for prospective therapy dogs to get ready for their certification test through Therapy Dogs International (TDI).

Founded in 1976, TDI is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers. Strict temperament and health evaluations are required, and each dog must pass a test given by a certified TDI evaluator. Composed of 13 individual exercises, the test quickly determines which dogs are ready for their new “job.” Zoey’s young readers especially enjoy hearing about how she passed her “Leave It” portion— a test which involved walking past a very long and very tempting line of hot dogs without tasting one.

Having passed her certification test she received her official yellow therapy dog tag and TDI bandana. Zoey’s first visit was to the Saugerties Public Library, and the “Read To Zoey” program was born.

Stephanie McElrath, the library’s children’s program assistant, welcomed the new program immediately. “When children visit the library and read to Zoey they associate reading with something fun, a ‘tail waggin’ tutor,’” she says. “Zoey is always happy to hear them read a story as a non-judgmental listener. The child builds self-esteem, gains skills and can show remarkable improvement in their reading ability. The Therapy Dogs International is a wonderful program.”

Zoey is equally as comfortable being in the library. As soon as her bandana is tied around her neck, she knows she is going to work and goes eagerly down the stairs into the children’s library. After greeting her friends behind the librarian’s desk, she’s ready for her readers.

When the program  first began, Zoey visited one Wednesday a month and appointments were made, with each child having 15 minutes to read. She now visits two Saturdays a month and is available for a one-and-a-half-hour time slot. Instead of appointments, children patiently wait their turn to read to her. Some read to Zoey by themselves. If they’re comfortable reading aloud to others, you’ll often find a circle of children around Zoey listening to whomever is reading. Once a child has their book, they tell her, “Let’s go to work, Zoey!” and she runs to their couch and settles either next to them or puts her head on their lap. For the next 10-15 minutes, Zoey “listens” intently to the story. Some children pet her while they read, and some stop occasionally to show her the pictures in the book. For the child, reading is a relaxing time spent with a calm and gentle dog, but there is in fact a lot more going on.

Zoey’s main job is to give children the opportunity to practice their reading skills. Many have difficulty reading and as a result have developed self-esteem issues. Some are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of others. Reading to Zoey makes them forget this. With her head on their lap, they are able to read aloud with no threat of being judged or criticized for mistakes. Reading becomes fun, especially when they have to pick up a floppy ear laying over their book or when she decides to give them a kiss of encouragement.

The program also encourages new readers. Six-year-old Saugerties resident Caleb Nelson started reading about a year ago when he was in kindergarten. But as his mom Sara explains, he “really didn’t like reading very much, and found it frustrating. We knew he was still very young and he would learn to read when he was ready.”

The summer reading program at the library, however, changed that. “Caleb still wasn’t enthusiastic about reading,” Nelson says, “and he didn’t want to read to us at home. When he had the opportunity to read to Zoey, he loved the idea. It made reading fun for him. It made him want to try to read. Zoey provided Caleb with the motivation he needed to want to read.”

For Caleb, the reasons were much simpler. “I like her company,” he says. “I liked when she licked me. It was really fun.” He’s already looking forward to reading “The Giving Tree” and a few Shel Silverstein poems to Zoey during their next visit.

Reading to a dog helps new readers in many ways. As Nelson explains, “Reading to Zoey provided a great foundation for entering first grade. It got him to practice reading more and to try harder words.”

Six-year-old Piper Cohane of Windham has been reading to Zoey for almost a year and has discovered that Zoey enjoys books on jokes. To Piper’s delight, Zoey will listen to the same knock- knock joke over and over.

That joy over reading to a dog is exactly what builds excitement about reading. After being with Zoey, many talk about going home to read to their own dog or cat, and that’s exactly what the program hopes to encourage.

Gillian, Hannah and Meredith Mills of Saugerties have been reading to Zoey since the program began. Their huge love of reading and books, as well as their love for Zoey, is apparent as soon as they come into the library. The girls have nicknamed Zoey “Fuzz Muffin” and Zoey eagerly greets each one with her trademark fuzzy hugs.

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For Gillian, reading to Zoey is fun “because she likes all books.” Hannah uses her time with Zoey to “catch up on her reading” (and to get some snuggle time).

At the end of every visit, Zoey gives each reader a hand scrolled bookmark with a little paw print on the end: something to mark their place in their book until next time and to remember their four-legged reading partner. Regardless of the many benefits, the true magic of the program is how Zoey makes them feel at the library.

Eight-year-old Meredith Mills, a second grader at Grant D. Morse Elementary school, sums it up perfectly. “Reading to Zoey is fun. I learn better when someone is listening.”

To a tail waggin’ tutor, that’s all that matters.

 

When Zoey’s not at the library, she lives with the author and her husband Jim in Kingston. Follow her adventures and love of reading at her Facebook page: Read To Zoey. More information on TDI is available at www.tdi-dog.org or (973) 252-7171.