Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content 'Paws to Read' program enhances literacy

STEPHANIE EARLS Updated: April 12, 2013 at 12:00 am

When it comes to listening skills, you can’t beat a dog.

A dog doesn’t judge. A dog doesn’t know if you flub a line, and wouldn’t care if you did.

“Ah, I lost my place...where were we?”

Eight-year-old Tristan Willar slides his finger down the page of “The Helpful Puppy,” an illustrated children’s book.

“Ah, here we are,” he tells Sadie, the 10-year-old mixed breed stretched at his feet in the children’s reading area at Cheyenne Mountain Library. Willar turns the book around to display the picture, which Sadie politely sniffs.

“She’s probably thinking about the treats,” says Willar, who has a few emergency dog biscuits stashed in his pocket. “If I read to cats, they would probably jump everywhere.”

Literacy studies have shown that reading aloud, as well as the act of listening to books read aloud by others, can help build a strong vocabulary, confidence in reading and language problem-solving skills. For nine years, the Pikes Peak Library District’s Paws to Read program has drawn in children to practice those skills before a forgiving, four-legged audience.

“When children are reading to a dog, there are no corrections made, and no commentary,” says Amy McNamara, a retired elementary school teacher, library volunteer and Sadie’s owner. “Plus, if they’re a little shy about dogs, if they come in on a regular basis, they start to feel a little better about them.”

The program also helps make kids comfortable with a library setting, said Jean Bishop, children’s services specialist with the Pikes Peak Library District.

“The purpose of the program is basically for children to practice reading, while they’re enhancing their library experience,” Bishop says. “The dogs are non-judgemental listeners, so they (the children) have the opportunity not only to experience a book, but to tell a dog a story.”

Many of the children who’ve participated in the program have improved their scores in reading classes and have grown more willing to speak up in class, Bishop says.

Before Ashley Reilly began bringing her son William, 6, and daughter Jasmine, 11, to the weekly Paws sessions at the Cheyenne Mountain branch two years ago, both children had experienced problems reading in school.

“I think it has helped a lot. Now, he reads bigger and longer books. He’s one of the top readers in his class,” says Reilly. “They’re sad when the dog isn’t here.”

As for Jasmine, though she once struggled to keep up with her peers in reading class, she says Sadie has helped her learn to love books.

“Sometimes when I read in my head, I make mistakes. But when I read out loud, I can fix those mistakes,” Jasmine Reilly says.

Some of the canines — which range from a 10-pound toy breed to a 200-pound Mastiff — have even developed fan clubs.

“Kids come and they want to read to that particular dog and they look forward to coming back again and again,” Bishop says.

Dogs participating in the program have received Canine Good Citizen and therapy dog certifications, confirming mild temperament and obedience.

“A lot of the dogs were trained to be therapy or assistance dogs and for some reason or other they didn’t graduate,” Bishop says. “This was their second career, this gave them a purpose.”

For the record, there is one feline among the four-legged listening crew, a hairless cat named Piglet, who’s part of the Paws program at the Penrose Library branch.

“She just sort of sits there,” Bishop says. As a good listener should.

Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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