Wags for Hope volunteers offer their support and guidance through Reading Education Assistance Dogs program
Once a month, the Boonsboro branch of the Washington County Free Library enlists the help of a few furry friends. Their job? To help kids improve their literacy skills through reading aloud.
These aren’t just any animals though—they’re volunteers for the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, which was created in 1999 by Intermountain Therapy Animals, a Utah-based nonprofit organization. All R.E.A.D. companions are registered therapy animals who’ve demonstrated the appropriate skills and temperament for the job. The animals volunteer along with their owners/handlers as a team; the animal’s role is simply to be there and listen, while the handler supervises and provides support as needed.
The R.E.A.D. program is offered at the Boonsboro library by Wags for Hope, a nonprofit organization in Frederick that connects volunteers and their pets with opportunities to help others through pet therapy. Wags for Hope volunteers also visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, and schools throughout the region.
Learning to read can be a stressful process for many children, and reading aloud to an animal can be less intimidating than reading to another person. “Dogs are impartial—they don’t say when you missed a word,” says Colleen Foti, R.E.A.D. in libraries director for Wags for Hope. “We help guide the reading a little bit as the pet owners, but the kids can sit there and pet the dog or cat, and they can relax because there’s no judgment there.”
Some of the benefits of therapy with animals includes lowering of blood pressure and heart rate and increased relaxation, according to Intermountain Therapy Animals’ website. Subsequently, having a therapy animal present can help create an environment that’s more comfortable and conducive to learning for children who might be nervous about reading aloud.
The R.E.A.D. program can help kids of all ages and ability levels get the practice they need to build their skills and confidence and overcome their fears of reading aloud. “We deal with the full spectrum—we have beginners, kids who bring in full chapter books, kids who are learning English as a second language, and kids who are just starting in Spanish in school,” Foti says. “A lot of times they have to read this stuff out loud at school, and that can be a scary prospect for a kid.”
The program also is meant to be a fun way to encourage children’s interest in books and reading. “The kids love it—they see the dogs in the library and their faces light up,” says Jennifer Ross, branch manager of the Boonsboro library. “That’s a big part of the appeal. You don’t often see dogs in a library.”
The animals love participating in the R.E.A.D. program, too, according to Foti. “My dog, Toby, loves to go because he knows he’s going to get extra love,” she says. “And there’s just something extra special for him about going in and being loved by children. It’s amazing to watch because the animals kind of put on a show, and it’s amazing to see the openness they can provide.”
The Boonsboro branch of the Washington County Free Library hosts the R.E.A.D. program on the fourth Monday of each month from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Several other county library branches host similar reading education programs. The Fletcher branch, for example, has partnered with Baltimore-based nonprofit organization Pets on Wheels to offer Read with a Friend events on the first Saturday of each month.
Visit www.washcolibrary.org for more information and to see a complete lineup of events at the Washington County Free Library branches.
To learn more about Wags for Hope, visit www.wagsforhope.org.
- Missy Sheehan is a freelance writer and editor living in Martinsburg, West Virginia. See her work at www.sheehanwriting.com.