09/06/09 — Therapy dogs will read with children at library

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Therapy dogs will read with children at library

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 6, 2009 2:00 AM

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Sandra Gardener poses with her therapy dog, Jerry Lee.

Jerry Lee is one of the most unusual reading tutors children at the Wayne County Public Library will ever meet.

He can't even turn the pages of a book, which is just as well, because he doesn't know how to read.

But the 2-year-old German shepherd is a licensed therapy dog, one of the first in a new program that will pair elementary school students with patient pooches who can help them practice their reading skills.

When handler Sandra Gardener discovered Jerry Lee curled up with her granddaughter and listening intently as the first-grader read aloud to him from a book, she realized her dog had a natural aptitude for helping others.

"He was sitting very attentively, listening to every word she said. And I thought wow, he would be a super reading dog," Mrs. Gardener said.

Reading aloud to an audience is one of the best ways for children to overcome their uncertainty about reading, but it can be intimidating and even embarrassing for nervous students to read aloud to an adult. However, reading to a sympathetic, though silent, furry friend is much less threatening to many children, and some special dogs like Jerry Lee are more than happy to oblige.

Mrs. Gardener has been involved with training and handling therapy dogs for several years. Working with American Kennel Club certified dog trainer Jessica Smith of Smart Paws training, she has helped two of her five dogs, including Jerry Lee, become licensed through Therapy Dogs International, a worldwide society for the volunteer pups.

Earning certification with TDI was a lot harder than just playing fetch. Licensed therapy dogs must pass a series of stringent tests to judge their canine character, ensuring that they will stay calm and responsive to their handler even if petted roughly or startled by loud noises or strange objects, such as wheelchairs or crutches.

"There are different things they have to do on command. You can't force them, they have to do it," Mrs. Gardener said.

Having Jerry Lee involved in the program is a special treat for Mrs. Gardener, too. The German shepherd is a rescue dog that was homeless before she adopted him, and bringing him to the point where he can help others has been challenging, but worthwhile, she said.

And there are benefits for the dogs, too, including lots of ear-scratches and cuddles.

"These dogs love it, and love the attention and love the people," Mrs. Gardener said. "It gives them a job, they've got something to do. They know when I pull out their bandannas they're ready to work."

The idea behind Reading With Rover might sound strange, but proponents of the program say it works, said Maegen Wilson, a Wayne County Public Library reference librarian spearheading the effort.

"It is something that's been established in many other libraries. A lot of the schools and libraries are reporting increases in reading scores, child confidence," Ms. Wilson said. "A lot of times it's making reading more fun for these kids."

For safety, only licensed therapy dogs will take part in the program, and a special meet-and-greet session is scheduled for Sept. 26 at 3 p.m. at the library to let the kids and their parents meet the dogs and learn about pet safety. Even children who are not familiar with dogs are welcome to sign up for the program, Ms. Wilson said, as the handlers will be teaching the kids how to interact with the dogs before moving on to reading.

Once the program gets under way, students will be able to sign up for 15 minute sessions to sit down and read with their new friend every second and fourth Saturday of the month. And as a special reward for completing a book, the dog will ink-stamp a pawprint into the back of the book, and the child will take the memento home to keep.

There are currently only two dogs signed up for the program, and organizers are hopeful that more people with certified therapy dogs will step forward to volunteer.

"We're hoping they can eventually establish a therapy dog group in Wayne County," Ms. Wilson said.

The library is also accepting donations of children's books appropriate for elementary school-aged students to give away during Reading With Rover. For more information, contact Ms. Wilson at 735-1824, ext. 5100.