Good listeners: Dogs give young readers undivided attention | July 2, 2014 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - July 2, 2014

Good listeners: Dogs give young readers undivided attention

by Barbara Wood

Robbie came from Redwood City to the Woodside library on June 11 just so he could read to his longtime friend, Annie, who happens to be a 132-pound soft, cuddly and very, very patient Newfoundland dog.

Annie and her person, Jeanie Eagan, were at the library as part of the Paws for Tales program, which sends dogs specially trained by the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA to local libraries so children (and sometimes adults) can read to them.

Annie and Jeanie, along with Sara, a Hovawart dog, and her person Sherri Camps, come to the Woodside library on the second Wednesday of the month at 4 p.m. In Atherton two dogs and their trainers are at the library on the fourth Saturday of the month at 11 am.

In June, Sara's owner had another event to attend, so, for the first time ever, Sara missed the reading session.

Robbie was thrilled to see Annie. Robbie is 14, with some developmental delays, but he loves reading to Annie so much that he has, at least once, tried to sneak out of the building with her.

Robbie's mom says that after her son spends just 15 minutes with Annie, he gets relaxed. "He gets calm," she says. "He gets happy. It lasts through the night."

What does Robbie say? "Can we stay with Annie?" he asks, as the massive dog lies on her back for a tummy rub.

Cassie Pfaff, 6, and her friend Stella, 5, came from San Carlos to read to Annie. The two girls double-teamed the job, with Cassie reading "Come Back Ben" to Annie, showing her the illustrations, while Stella brushes Annie's long black fur.

"Therapy dogs are trained to give unconditional love and attention" to whoever they are working with, says Jeanie Eagan.

Cherie Gilbert Cisneros, a pre-kindergarten student at Woodside School, spent most of her time cuddling with Annie, but her father said she'll be back again.

Eva Lewis of Woodside, who doesn't yet know how to read but loves dogs enough to carry a stuffed one with her to the library, signed up for a session when she saw Annie at the library and patiently waited her turn to spend some time with the dog.

Brian Probst, director of volunteer and retail services for the humane society, said the Paws to Tales program began after research showed that reading out loud to dogs could help children improve their reading skills.

"It helped with self-esteem and self-confidence," he said, with children improving as much as a grade level in reading after several sessions with a dog.

The humane society has 45 dogs and handlers who participate in the program. Dogs first must get their "Canine Good Citizen" certification.

"That makes sure they have good manners," says Mr. Probst. They then must pass a temperament evaluation, where their reaction to things such as having their paws touched, tails tugged on, or being restrained in a tight hug, as well as loud noises and medical equipment, is tested before they can join the pet assisted therapy program. Dogs in the Paws to Tales program also are evaluated interacting with children.

Even adults sometimes read to the dogs, Mr. Probst says, including some who are learning to speak English. "It's a wide range," he said, "because the dogs are so welcoming."

Nicole Pasini, who oversees the Woodside and Atherton libraries, says, "Paws for Tales provides a completely non-threatening learning experience for children who are beginning to read."

Adults sometimes forget that learning to read isn't easy, she says. "Studies show children who are reluctant to read in front of peers are much less anxious when reading to an animal. Removing that anxiety helps kids learn to enjoy reading, to read more regularly and, as a result, become better readers."

Ms. Pasini said the experience can have long-term implications. "A child's ability to read proficiently by third grade is tied to their ability to finish high school, attend college, maintain employment," she said. "Paws for Tales makes learning to read less stressful and a lot more fun. Also, it's a totally adorable mix of little kids and dogs."

Annie spends about 25 hours a week at volunteer work. She has received extra training to also be a volunteer for Hope Animal Assisted Crisis Recovery, which deploys her and Jeanie to places such as Santa Barbara after the recent shooting and Oso, Washington, after the mudslides. The 8-year-old dog also pulls a dog cart with a carting harness and does search and rescue.

Sara was adopted by Sherri and her husband when she was 3 years old. "She quickly excelled at obedience and therapy certifications," says Sherri.

In addition to volunteering at the library, Sara goes into individual therapy sessions with children, visits the Ronald McDonald House and the Weingarten School for the Deaf, and in 2011 received a "Hero Award" from the American Red Cross for her "acts of kindness." The next year she demonstrated more heroics when she rescued a child from White Pines Lake.

Sara even inspired one of her Woodside readers, Sophia, to write a book, which the young author dedicated to Sara.

"I went to the Woodside library and read to Sara," the book says. "She is a very sweat dog. I read the book horible terible very bad day. I got to walk Sara around the garden. Sara was a very good dog to let me walk around the garden with her. It was a beautiful sight in the garden. Annie was not their. I got a bookmark and Sara's card. I saw birds and horses. It was absilotly beautiful. Thank you for being so amazing. I hope I can come again. Bye! Note from ather - You are one of my my favrite dog ever!"

Dogs, it should be noted, don't mind spelling mistakes, either.


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