Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


March 2004

Vol VIII Issue III

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University of Washington
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Dog Day Afternoon
A newshound’s report from PLA

By Linda Johns, MLIS Evening
The paw prints leading into the library are the first hint that something’s a little different at a Salt Lake City branch. It gets even better inside, where a six-year-old boy is flopped on top of Zelda, a Portuguese water dog. The boy pauses after reading a sentence and then purposefully readjusts the book.

“Look at this, Zelda!” he says, positioning the book so the pooch has a good view of the picture.

The story of a boy reading to a dog would be sweet enough on its own. But this story has an additional twist. Four weeks earlier, this same boy reluctantly entered the library with his mother, his head hung down, his eyes on his shoes, his voice softly saying, “I don’t read very good.”

Luckily, this young reader had come to the READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program at a Salt Lake City branch library. Since 1999, the library has partnered with Intermountain Therapy Animals to create what they call a “pawsitive reading experience.”

Dog lover Sandi Martin, a registered nurse and therapy dog handler, presented a workshop on READ at the Public Library Association conference in Seattle (February 2004). Martin knew from working with kids and dogs in hospital settings that the canine-kid partnership could be a powerful way to reach reluctant and struggling readers.

Now, each Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m., as many as six dogs eager for stories wait in corners of the children’s area of a SLC branch library. New students may be shy at first, but the important task of helping to choose a book for the dog quickly puts newcomers at ease. Returning readers enthusiastically tell new readers about each dog’s personality and what kind of books they like.

For a beginning reader working with phonics, the dog’s handler helps break down words by positioning a dog’s paw over part of the word (they call it “Paws for Phonics” — there’s no end to the possibility of dog puns when promoting a program like this). Phonics, which can be deadly dull, suddenly become interesting when a big dog paw gets involved.

“We use the dog as a conduit,” says Martin, noting how this technique eases anxiety for young readers. When one girl stumbles over the word “poacher” in the middle of a sentence, the handler working with a dog named CJ quickly steps in.

“I don’t know if CJ knows what ‘poacher’ means,” the handler says. She turns to the dog: “CJ, do you know what ‘poacher’ means?” Then the handler turns to the young girl. “I think we’d better look up ‘poacher’ so CJ knows what’s going on in this story.”

With this approach, kids start to feel more confident asking for information (they are, after all, asking for the dog). It also puts them in the role of teacher as they “help” the dog.
Owen Henderson, a basset hound and amateur reading dog, hopes to have his therapy dog credentials soon after his human, Linda Johns, finishes her MLIS.
The idea of reading to a dog is natural, happening every day in homes around the world. But the READ folks stress that these library dogs are not your ordinary family dog or your next door neighbor’s pet.

Each of these reading dogs is a trained therapy dog, which means it’s passed rigorous obedience training and demonstrated that it’s predictable in a variety of settings. It’s also imperative that a trained animal handler be there at all times. At READ, the dogs sport jaunty red bandanas and their humans wear matching red t-shirts that immediately identify them as a reading team. The dogs are fully groomed and spritzed with anti-dander spray before each READ session.

READ has been featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in various parenting magazines and on ABC News. The founders of READ offer a collection of materials for libraries and schools thinking of starting a canine reading program. Visit Intermountain Therapy Animals for more information.

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