Dogs have been “man’s best friend” for ages, serving as hunters, transporters, herders, rescuers, drug-sniffing detectors and, of course, pets. Now canines are educators, taking on the job of helping young children read.
Therapy dogs Bailey and Darby, accompanied by their handler, Anita Lawson, do just that at the Kalamazoo Public Library.
The children read books to the dogs, and Bailey and Darby provide affection and unconditional acceptance — qualities that encourage young children who may lack the confidence or desire to read.
“Children gain confidence in reading because the dog makes no judgments,” says Lawson, who worked as a librarian at Otsego High School for 37 years.
When Lawson started the Read with Bailey program at KPL in the summer of 2009, her mission was twofold: As a retired librarian, she wanted to make sure children got a good start in a skill that would last a lifetime, and, as an avid dog lover, she wanted children to like dogs.
The Read with Bailey program is offered at various times in the children’s departments at all four of the library’s branches. Children come in for private 15-minute sessions with Bailey or Darby and read to the dogs from a book they have picked out at the library or brought with them. The child sits on one side of the dog while Lawson sits on the other side. As a child reads, he or she often pets the dog and shows him pictures in the book and sometimes makes comments about the story.
Lawson says one mother told her that her daughter wouldn’t read out loud at home or at school until she met Bailey.
If a child can’t read yet, Lawson encourages him or her to explain the book’s pictures to the dog. On his first visit with Bailey, a boy sat quietly beside his sister while she read a story to the dog. On the second visit, the boy explained the pictures to Bailey.
Lawson says reading out loud is important because many jobs require oral presentations. She says that reading to therapy dogs gives kids both practice and confidence, especially if they are too shy to stand in front of a group. A 2014 study by Tufts University Veterinary Medical School bears out this claim, with researchers finding that therapy dogs can improve children’s reading abilities because they build the youngsters’ confidence.
Some children, however, are afraid of dogs, especially bigger dogs. But Lawson says that hasn’t been a problem in her program. Bailey, a Schnoodle (schnauzer and poodle mix) who is 24 inches high, and Darby, a toy poodle who stands at 12 inches, are curly, fluffy dogs. “To children, they look like stuffed dogs come to life,” Lawson says.
In addition, she says, children tend to read softly to the dogs, reinforcing the calm environment the dogs help create.
Darby, 3, is in his second year as a therapy dog, and usually lies on a child’s lap and often falls asleep. Lawson reassures the child that this is the way Darby shows he likes the story and is listening. Bailey, 12, a six-year therapy dog, is so attentive that the children think he actually listens and understands the story, Lawson says.
“Dogs know words,” she says, noting that she talks to her dogs throughout the day. “When they hear certain words in a story, they often react by cocking their heads. So they are paying attention to the reader.”
Therapy dogs are also known to help autistic children. One autistic boy at an elementary school held Bailey’s leash while two other kids read to the dog for 30 minutes. A librarian reported that it was the first time she saw the boy quiet in the library.
“Sitting still is hard, especially for autistic kids,” Lawson says, “but Bailey was the boy’s connection.”
Lawson also takes Darby to Sarah Powell’s third-grade class at Edison Elementary School for weekly 90-minute visits. It was Lawson’s friend and neighbor Jeanne Church who got the trio started in visiting schools. Church has been taking her dogs, Corky and Brandy, to schools for the past four years. Brandy also serves as a therapy dog at Parchment Community Library, Bronson Children’s Hospital and Borgess Medical Center.
Bailey and Darby look forward to going “to work,” Lawson says. She signals it’s that time by brushing their teeth and coat and putting a special “work collar” and bandanna on each of them. They respond by prancing and dancing.
“Dogs have to have a purpose,” says Lawson. “My goal is to help the kids love reading and like dogs. It’s cool to push my love of reading with my love of dogs. I will continue doing this because it’s a pretty nifty retirement job.”