Paige Hodgins made sure her audience for story time at the library could see the pictures as she read Katie Loves the Kittens. She had one especially patient listener–one who likely didn’t follow the storyline and was content to serve as a fluffy pillow for Paige’s 3-year-old sister, Elizabeth.
Paige, 6, paused occasionally to pet her listener, an 8-year-old St. Bernard-Grand Pyrenees mix named Dash, who came to the library that day expressly to inspire young readers.
Dash, along with three or four other dogs, is a regular listener two Saturdays a month for the PAWS to Read program at the Finksburg Branch of the Carroll County Public Library.
“It’s about encouraging reading and getting kids comfortable with reading, especially out loud,” said Max Eber, a children’s library associate at the Finksburg branch and coordinator of PAWS.
All the dogs come from Pets on Wheels, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that offers visits from therapy pets in Maryland. The animals, which are screened for temperament, bring comfort and joy to hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, schools, and more.
For the Finksburg library program, dogs of different breeds and sizes are chosen to visit with families. Some families will stay and read to one favorite dog, and others will take time to read to all the dogs if time allows.
The program, which has been running for several years, was started with the hope of boosting literacy and social emotional skills in young children, especially for beginning or reluctant readers.
“The aim is for younger school-age kids–kids who are just learning to read or who might be a little behind in their reading comprehension, or those with speech impediments, or if they need the little bit of extra practice,” Eber said. “Studies have shown that reading to a dog, as opposed to reading with a tutor … does ultimately improve their approach to reading.”
While the program is designed to promote literacy for younger children, it also encourages families to read together and explore the library. One of the dogs, a laidback golden retriever named Bear, had a seating area near the library entrance to help greet families arriving for the story hour and those who may be hearing about it for the first time.
The Blake family chose to start the afternoon—their first participating in PAWS–in the busy children’s book area with Sara, a petite, 5-year-old Siberian Husky. That area was the perfect spot for Sara, who was eager to listen and eager to greet every child who visited. She didn’t leave any child out, even those who were reluctant to read but stayed to hear the stories.
Autumn Blake, 8, chose to read Once I Ate a Pie to Sara. Her younger brother Dalton, 6, sat between her and their mom, Margaret, and listened until it was his turn.
Dalton quietly read The Berenstain Bears Get Ready for Bed, snuggling close to his mom and asking for her help with unfamiliar words.
Both children wanted to meet the other dogs, and both chose new books to read to Walter, a King Charles Spaniel, and Bear, the golden retriever.
The library plans to continue with PAWS and is considering adding other animal-themed programs to benefit families.
“Everyone seems to benefit from the dogs’ presence,” Eber said. “It’s a very therapeutic thing for all ages.”