Book meets dog: Children lose their fear of reading when canines make up their audience

DailyRecord. July 20, 2011

Three dogs sat patiently at the Morris County Library recently and listened as 20 children took turns reading them stories.

While it was an odd sight, the session was designed to help reluctant readers.

“This really helps the kids,” said Princess Thomas, supervising librarian for the children’s library. “I see them come in, they can’t read or are afraid of the dogs and after this, they’re not afraid. Some can’t read enough after this program. They develop confidence to read aloud.”

The Paws4Reading program, conducted in May, began at the library nine years ago, after Thomas learned of a similiar program at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center. According to Thomas, parents feel the program seems to help kids because there’s no pressure from the dogs.

“The dogs have a calming affect on the kids,” Thomas said. “They pet them and talk to them. There’s no correcting or ‘That’s not how you say it.’ ”

Each child, in grades on to seven, picked a book from the library or brought one from home. St. Hubert’s provided three therapy dogs with their volunteer handlers, so each child could read to the dogs for 10 minutes.

The program has helped improve Elizabeth Roast’s confidence, according to her grandmother, Audrey Roast of Morristown.

“My granddaughter needs the social activity because she has Asperger’s syndrome,” Roast said. “She loves to read and likes to be here. This program really helps her with her social skills, and she really needs this.”

Christina Xenitelis brought her 7-year-old daughter, Alexa, and 5-year-old son, Dominic.

“We have so many books because they love to read,” Xenitelis said. “And Alexa’s greatest love is dogs. This is perfect.”

“I’m a kindergarten teacher, and it’s really hard for kids who don’t like to read as much. Reading builds up their confidence,” the Morristown resident said. “A teacher I work with has the kids read to hamsters, and it really works.”

Seven-year-old Emma Vales, of Hanover, just likes the chance to read, said mother Julie Vales.

“All the dogs look unintimidating, which is good,” Vales said. “All my kids did the reading programs here. She's been coming here since she was little. She loves to read.”

Fred Passarella of Madison was with son, Fred Jr., and his granddaughter, Abigail Rose.

“The dogs are better than the kids,” Passarella said. “They have the best dogs at St. Hubert's.”

Lynne Moronski said her two daughters were so excited for the program, they asked about it all afternoon.

“They've been asking to come since four o'clock," the Morris Township resident said of Katherine, 8, and Elizabeth, 7. "They love to read. It's a nice chance to give me a break and have me entertained. And the dogs are very good listeners."

Honey, Zeke and Bandit were the three dogs who participated with their owners, and the youngsters immediately flocked to them.

“Always ask to pet any dog before you touch them,” said Pat Sarles of Whippany, who brought Zeke. The 10-year-old Tibetan spaniel’s official name is BISS Amer/Can Ch. Ambrier’s Nothing Gets Past Zeke. “He loves this. He’s been doing this since he was 4. He’s excited. He loves the kids.”

Alan Guadagnino of Cedar Knolls brought his dog, Honey, a golden retriever-Labrador retriever-Chow mix.

“Honey’s hard of hearing, so you have to read loud,” Guadagnino instructed 9-year-old Stephanie Arias as she read to Honey. “Honey is a great dog — just the best. I do this program, and it’s nice.”

Honey also visits hospitals with Guadagnino.

“I was so sick,” he said. “So now I give back. Nothing bothers me anymore.”

Tibetan terrier Bandit, 9, has been a working dog with the program for more than three years.

“It's a great program,” Bandit’s owner, Marcia Lederman of Montville, said. “He also goes to Overlook (Hospital) and Morristown (Medical Center) hospitals as a therapy dog.”

When the program started, librarian Thomas said, she was hesitant to bring the dogs into the library.

“At that time, everything in here was new,” she said. “The carpets, the room, and we thought, ‘What will happen with dogs coming in here?’ But the dogs came with volunteers and it worked out great.”