Some people might think you’re crazy if you tell them you read aloud to dogs, but the parents of children who have participated in the Collierville Burch Library’s “Paws for Reading” program would tell them differently.
Jodi Hall is the Youth Services Librarian at the Collierville Burch Library. Around 12 years ago, she started Paws for Reading in conjunction with the library’s regular summer reading program. Collierville was still in the Memphis and Shelby County library system then, and Hall heard about the program through the Main branch location. The concept was that young readers received an opportunity to practice their reading skills out loud to non-critical, unbiased, and pet-able listeners, otherwise known as Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.).
Hall connected with Mid-South Therapy Dogs for more information, and then-director Mary Earhart spoke very candidly to her about what was required for a quality program.
“The dogs and their handlers not only go through basic therapy dog training, but they must also take a separate training for the reading program,” said Hall. “It takes a while for them to get vetted. They are watched very carefully and have strict guidelines to follow. They even have insurance.”
Hall said that from the very first summer of the program, Paws for Reading was extremely popular. The initial signup was done in person rather than online, and parents lined up before the library had even opened to grab a spot for their children. One year, she decided to skip the program because she thought it might be getting stale, but the parental outcry was loud and she never did that again.
The read aloud sessions are 15 minutes each, and the participants must show up 10 minutes prior to their appointment or forfeit their slot.
“We like to have at least 3 dogs per session, but no more than that because it can get crowded,” said Hall. “So that’s 4 readers per hour for each dog.”
There are similar programs around the country and Hall said that Collierville has tweaked its version as most libraries do. A structured, progressive program didn’t work for Collierville, nor did offering the program in the fall. But the standalone summer sessions continue to be wildly popular and most importantly, they work.
“There was one little boy whose mother came to talk to me after his first summer in the program,” said Hall. “I didn’t know the extent to which he was having problems reading aloud in school. When his mother spoke to me, she had tears in her eyes. She said that her son had been very embarrassed to read aloud in class and that the program had increased his confidence tremendously. She was so grateful for the program.”