There’s nothing sweeter than the interaction between children and pets. Add in reading and you have an unbeatable combination that goes far beyond the obvious cuteness factor. And two local organizations are bringing children, pets and reading together to unleash the benefits of reading to pets.
The St. Charles City-County Library has been offering a “read to dogs” program for kids since 2007. The program is designed for children ages 6-12, and according to Maggie Melson, Youth Services Manager for the Library District, the program has been and continues to be very popular. In its current form, Tale Waggers: Read to Dogs, the library has partnered with trained therapy dogs from the St. Charles chapter of Love on a Leash to create a welcoming environment where self-conscious early readers can build confidence.
Melson points out that learning to read can be a stressful experience for early readers. Reading is a skill that takes time and practice to build. In a classroom setting, children may feel pressured to perform. And reading out loud, in front of their peers, can be especially challenging and embarrassing for a child. “You know how you talk normally, but when a child is learning to read, their speech can be stilted, which feels unnatural. Allowing them an opportunity to read and practice reading while petting a dog is relaxing for them. It calms them and they don’t feel judged,” Melson says.
That calming, non-judgmental support for the kids is so important. It makes practicing a challenging new skill feel safe and even fun. The dogs don’t correct mispronunciations. They don’t get impatient when the child needs to take some extra time sounding out a word. And the sweet expressions on their faces make it clear there’s nowhere else they’d rather be at that moment. They just listen quietly, love unconditionally, and offer warm, snuggly encouragement to each reader.
For each event, the library coordinates with Love on a Leash volunteers to bring in the appropriate number of dogs for the number of children. This allows each child to read with one or two dogs without having to wait too long for their turn. The kids can either bring favorite books from home or choose from a selection provided by the library. When the children arrive, they’re given crafts to do while they wait. When their turn to read comes, they can take a minute to pet the dog they’ll be reading to, then settle in to enjoy a story together.
The children are registered by their parents through the “Calendar & Registration” tab under “Classes & Events” on the library’s website – youranswerplace.org – or with the help of staff at their local branch. Many of the branches offer the program, though some offer it more frequently than others based on the level of interest in their area. The program is free for families in the community, with or without a library card. And though registration is encouraged to help the library plan for each event, walk-ins are also welcomed.
The program helps children in the community learn to be better, more confident readers. But the hope is that they might also learn that reading is fun. Melson remarks, “For the library as a whole, we want kids to come and want to read. School teaches them to read. Our goal is to help them learn to love to read… to read for enjoyment.”
Books With Bingo
Five Acres Animal Shelter, located on Pralle Lane in St. Charles, has also implemented a formal reading program for children and the animals in the shelter. But in their case, the benefits extend beyond just the early readers. Children benefit from the boost to their self-confidence that comes from participating in ‘reading to dogs’ programs, but puppies, older dogs, and cats also benefit – especially when they’re living in a shelter while waiting to be adopted.
Five Acres has been around since 1973. With a mission of saving as many animals as possible, they take in dogs and cats who have been surrendered by owners who could no longer keep them for one reason or another. They also work with local animal control facilities and overcrowded shelters in Missouri and other parts of the country to transfer animals that are facing euthanasia. Once new animals come in, the Five Acres staff will love and care for them until they find another family for them to join.
Five Acres consists of three buildings: a beautiful old barn that belonged to the Pralle family and two newer buildings, which more than doubled the number of dogs and cats Five Acres could take in and save. The newer canine and feline buildings were both designed by Ruth Scheidegger, a long-time, generous supporter and advocate for the shelter, with maximum comfort for the animals in mind. In these new spaces, the cats have room to roam and plenty of ‘condos’ for relaxing, and the dogs each have their own indoor and outdoor spaces, unless they’re sharing with a sibling.
Even with the expansion and improvements to the facilities in recent years, there’s a certain level of stress involved for animals living the shelter life while waiting for their forever homes. Human interaction is important for all the animals, but dogs especially need companionship. Todd Jones, Executive Director at Five Acres Animal Shelter remarks, “You’ve got to keep their spirits up, so they don’t get into the doldrums of shelter life.”
The staff at Five Acres does everything they can to give each animal one-on-one attention and minimize the doldrums and stress for their furry guests. They utilize foster homes whenever possible. They’ve created play groups for the dogs. Volunteers walk the dogs regularly and even take them on ‘staycations’ to the park or other fun excursions off-site. They’ve even had a more informal ‘read to the animals’ program in recent years. But even with these efforts to provide as much love and attention as they can, they are limited by the number of available volunteers compared to the number of animals.
Having a child act as a Jr. Volunteer through the Books With Bingo program provides an opportunity for another level of human interaction. It calms the animals, helps them get comfortable being around children and trusting humans in general, and it provides a bonus bright spot in their day. That extra dose of attention from the Jr. Volunteers is welcomed, encouraged, and appreciated.
The children can bring books from home or choose from a selection of books donated to the shelter. They, and their parents are always welcome to read to and interact with the cats, of course, but the dogs are most involved in the more formal program. Parents and their children will go through an orientation, then a Five Acres volunteer will escort one of the dogs to the conference room and story time can begin. And it’s sure to be beneficial for both the child and the animal who gets that extra dose of love.
To inquire about volunteer opportunities, fostering rescue animals, or Books with Bingo, please visit fiveacresanimalshelter.org or contact Kate Wall, Volunteer Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.