READ to Dogs program helps kids grow comfortable with reading

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Bixby spends every Sunday afternoon helping children learn to read at the Manhattan Public Library. Unlike most teachers, Bixby doesn’t offer encouragement or criticism; instead he offers a sympathetic ear and lets the kids gain confidence in their reading skills.

But Bixby is different from normal tutors in another way; Bixby is a big golden retriever as well as a trained therapy dog.

For the past three years, the library has encouraged children to come and read to therapy dogs as part of their READ to Dogs program. Jessica Long, children’s library assistant, said the reading occurs every weekend during the school year, and there are five or six different volunteers that bring in their dogs.

“They’re all certified therapy dogs, and most of the volunteers hear about it and approach us,” Long said.

Belinda Hunter, volunteer in the READ to Dogs program and Bixby’s owner, said it is fun to have kids come in and interact with the dog, especially some of the kids who do not have dogs at home.

“The dog is nonjudgmental, it won’t tell them if they mispronounced something, and it’s fun to see them reading to dogs and enjoying the library,” Hunter said. “There’s some kids, I’m remembering one girl, who had a difficult time reading at first and she’s now much more comfortable. We have a lot of regulars, but we have a lot of new faces too.”

Around 10 to 15 children come in each Sunday, most between 5 and 8 years old, and librarians said it is usually a mix of new and old faces. Students who come to 10 sessions in a year get a free book.

Sophia Jeffers, a 6-year-old reader in first grade, said she enjoys getting the chance to read to the therapy dogs.

“‘Cause I get to pet the dog at the end,” Jeffers said.

On this particular day, Jeffers read two books to Bixby, “Martha Speaks: Haunted House,” and “Rattatouille: The Big Cheese.” The reading occurs in a small room that is attached to the children’s portion of the library where the kids can read in privacy.

Hunter said she tries just to listen instead of offering advice.

“Yeah, I try not to interfere unless they ask for help,” Hunter said. “If they don’t say the right word and get the meaning, that’s the idea.”

Hunter said every kid reads to the dog in their own way. Some do not pet the dog until the end, some pet while reading, and some bring in a sibling and trade off reading and petting responsibilities. Parents even come in sometimes and pet the dog while listening to their child read.  

Meredith Jeffers, Sophia’s mother, said she saw the information for the program posted around the library one day.

“We love it, my daughter is in the first grade now, and she was starting to get nervous reading in front of people so we asked her if she wanted to do the program,” Jeffers said. “It’s really built up her confidence.”

Jeffers said the experience also encouraged her daughter while improving her reading skills.

“She practices at home for when she comes here, so it’s gotten her to read more,” Jeffers said.

While the kids are able to read to the dogs for about 20 minutes, Long said that many kids only read for five to 10 minutes.

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