Dogs may be known as “man’s best friend,” but children at the Shaler North Hills Library are learning that they also make really good teachers.
The Tail Waggin’ Tutors program, held one day each month at the library, provides the opportunity for kindergarten through third-grade students to read books to certified therapy dogs as a way to enhance and improve their reading skills.
“The program, which was originally called Reading with Rover, was started here about 15 years ago by a librarian who set up a similar program at the Avalon Public Library,” explained Caroline Horgan, circulation desk associate and coordinator of the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program. “At the time, we had a partnership with the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society (WPHS) who provided volunteers who would bring dogs certified through Therapy Dogs International (TDI).”
While the program no longer includes WPHS, it has evolved to include a number of volunteers who bring their own TDI-certified dogs to the library so that children can read to them. They spend 15 minutes each reading to the dogs from books that they bring from home or can choose from a display.
“Studies have shown that children’s anxiety decreases when they read to therapy dogs,” said Horgan of the relaxed, nonjudgmental atmosphere. “It’s not like being in a classroom, which can make some children more apprehensive; here they can practice their fluency and pronunciation, which helps with reading development.”
In addition to reading, children pet the dogs and show them pictures in the books. “We’ve had children here who were pre-readers, and they would tell the dogs made-up stories, which is a good prereading skill,” said Horgan.
Dog handlers also take part when needed, following suggestions provided by a program brochure. “For example, they are asked to allow children to have a few seconds to sound out words before telling them or point to pictures to give clues,” said Horgan. “They can also give the readers words when needed; the goal is to provide positive support and praise.”
Alejandro Bernal, whose daughter, Sofia, participated in the program, was so impressed that she had the family’s new rescue dog TDI-certified so that they could continue to take part.
“When Sofia was five, she was just learning to read, and Tail Waggin’ Tutors was a wonderful experience for her,” explained Bernal. “There was no correcting or judging; the dogs were just there for her.
“At the time, we lived in a rental and we weren’t able to have a dog,” she added. “Sofia loves animals, so being able to be with a dog was a joy.”
Once the family got their own home—and a ‘COVID’ puppy named Mishka—they realized that she would be perfect for the program.
“Mishka, who is a 2-year-old Elkhound mix, is very good with people,” said Bernal. “She loves being petted and is very gentle with children.”
Bernal began training Mishka and after a few months, was able to get her certified through Therapy Dogs International. The two currently volunteer at St. Margaret’s Hospital every week and began volunteering with the tutoring program at Shaler Library at the end of June.
While the dogs appreciate the attention, the children benefit from becoming more confident in their reading skills. “Several years ago, one of the parents who came in regularly with her son told me that she had noticed the improvement that came with getting extra practice,” said Horgan. “They made it a routine to come and read to the dogs.”
Horgan said that the therapy dogs may be able to be utilized in other ways, including by working with Dementia Friends PA—an idea that the library is currently considering.
For now, Horgan is looking to add more trained TDI handlers and their dogs to increase the number of children they serve. Volunteers do have to undergo background checks and receive child abuse clearance and dogs need to be up to date on vaccinations and certification.
Tail Waggin’ Tutors is held the last Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to noon, year-round. Readers need to register online for a 15-minute session, and can choose which dog they’d like to read to. There is no cost for the program. Once a year, usually in December, the library also holds a Party with the Pups Night for teens, where dogs accompany them while they do crafts and more.
To register, visit tinyurl.com/shalertails. To learn more about what it takes to volunteer with your dog, contact Horgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.