By Sue Wahlert

From April 12 to 18, libraries across the nation will be celebrating National Library Week. According to the American Library Association, “It is a time to celebrate the contributions of our nation’s libraries and librarians and to promote library use and support.” The quality and variety of programming libraries offer communities has grown exponentially and fulfills the needs of all residents, regardless of age. It is one of our most valuable community resources in a time when our communities have become more and more fragmented.

One such program that deserves celebration has literally, “gone to the dogs.” For more than 15 years, various libraries across Suffolk County have been inviting certified therapy dogs into their children’s department to encourage reluctant readers to develop their love of reading. Each participating library has their own unique name for their program, such as “Puppy Pals” or “Book Time with a Dog,” but the purpose is always the same, “We want to build confidence in young readers.  The dog is not going to critique the child as they are reading,” said Brian Debus, Emma S. Clark Library’s Children’s Department Head. It is an opportunity to make reading a fun process and it certainly takes the stress out of reading aloud.

Over the past month, we have visited five Suffolk County libraries and spent time with the dog handlers and children who attend these programs. Each library has their own style, but the formula is the same: take one certified therapy dog, a handler who loves what they do and a kid, place them in a quiet room and watch something magical happen.

Brothers, from left, Liam and Daniel Regan, with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Brothers, from left, Liam and Daniel Regan, with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

This all-volunteer program would not be possible without the dedication of the dog owner/handlers, their dogs and the willingness of the libraries to engage in this type of program.  It is an opportunity to strengthen the love of reading while developing a connection between families and the library that can last a lifetime.

North Shore Public Library, Reading to Mac
On Saturday mornings in the children’s department of the North Shore Public Library you can find the lovable Mac, an 11-year-old black lab nestled against the book cases awaiting young readers to arrive. Jane Broege, Mac’s handler and owner, said that Mac has been listening to readers for three years now, after spending his life as a guide dog. “Dogs feel better if they are doing something,” said Broege. “Dogs were put on this earth to make us happy.” The “Reading to Mac” program does make kids and their families happy while encouraging the love of reading in children.

Recently, readers eight-year-old Daniel Regan and his five-year-old brother Liam came prepared with their books. It was Daniel’s second time with Mac and Liam’s first. Daniel settled in on the cushy beanbag chair and began his story while Mac snuggled up against him. After completing “Henry and Mudge and the Happy Cat,” he was able to spend time petting and talking to Mac and Broege. His response to the program, “I love it; it makes me calm!”

Broege echoes the mantra of all programs similar to this one, “The dog is not judgmental and it does not mind what the child reads.” As a reward, Broege gives each reader a blue rubber bracelet with a paw print on it to remind them of their time with Mac. The program runs on Saturday mornings, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. To schedule a 15-minute session with Mac, call North Shore Public Library at 631-929-4488, ext 223.

Sachem Public Library, Book Time with a Dog
Established in 2001, Book Time with a Dog at Sachem Library invites not just one, but four dogs into its Children’s Department program room. You might think that four dogs in one room would encourage mayhem, but it is the complete opposite, calm and quiet. Each of the dogs is certified through an organization called Therapy Dogs International. Their handlers couldn’t be prouder to share their peaceful and obedient dogs with the young readers who come to this once-a-week program.

Children’s Librarian Marybeth Kozikowski has made this program one of her passions. “It is an esteem-building program, not an academic experience,” Kozikowski reflected. Amy Johnston, Head of Children’s Services, said of Kozikowski, “She has helped to make this program a success. She has written and obtained grants to purchase blankets for the dogs to sit on and chairs for the handlers to use during the program.”
Suzanne DiRusso began this program with a dog named Dakota and it continues to be very popular, reaching out to the library’s younger patrons. The goal of Book Time with a Dog is to provide a place for reluctant readers to sit with a dog and read. Because the dog is non-judgmental, it provides a non-threatening environment for readers. “Anytime they [children] want to sit and read, it is a win-win situation,” said Johnston.

Daniel Regan visits with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Daniel Regan visits with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

Sachem’s program is open to children in first to fifth grades with a reservation for a 20-minute session with a dog. Parents can watch through large glass windows as their children get comfortable with an assigned dog.

On this particular evening, 12 readers had reserved spots with the dogs. Handler and dog owner Beverly Killeen accompanied her ten-year-old dog Maureen, a golden retriever. Killeen has been participating in this reading program for six years and has had many other dogs involved in the program as well. “I love children. It is good to see them make progress from year to year,” said Killeen.

Sisters Morgan and Calleigh Quirk were so excited to read to Emma, a greyhound, and Sally, a golden retriever. Their mother Kelly said, “They sit and read to our dogs too!” According to another parent, Sandra Kyranakis, whose son Jake has been attending this program for two years, “It is a wonderful program that has given him confidence. He has struggled with reading. This program has helped him to enjoy it.”

After the story is complete, readers sit and talk with the handlers while petting the dog. Upon leaving, the readers are given a card with the dog’s picture and information on it — a fun way to remember the experience!

Reservations are required for “Book Time with a Dog,” which is held on Thursdays from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call Sachem Library at 631-588-5024 and ask for the Children’s Department.

Emma S. Clark Library, Reading with Angela or Alfie
On a recent Thursday afternoon, dog handler and owner, Fred Dietrich, brought Angela, a  seven-year-old purebred yellow Lab, to the Children’s Department of Emma S. Clark Library. Angela had a special job — to sit, relax and listen to a story. Dietrich said Angela completed an 8 week training program at Patchogue Rotary Animal Assisted Therapy and had been doing therapy work for over 2 years.

Emma S. Clark’s Library programs “Reading with Angela” and “Reading with Alfie,” began last spring after patrons inquired about a program of this type and the librarians researched journal articles about the benefits of therapy dogs with children.

Today’s half-hour reservation was held by six-year-old Thomas Tunstead, who came equipped with his own book, “The Bravest Dog Ever.” It was his first time reading to a dog. “I love reading to doggies!  If I ever tried to read to my dog, he would eat my book!” he said with a big smile.

Thomas Tunstead reads with Angela at the Emma S. Clark Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Thomas Tunstead reads with Angela at the Emma S. Clark Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

The dog, handler and reader were brought into the colorful program room in the Children’s Department. Angela and Thomas settled in on the floor next to Dietrich who held the leash at all times.  Thomas leaned into Angela’s furry body and got busy reading his story. This was the place to be, as Tunstead read about Balto, the famous dog, to Angela. There were no moans or moments of frustration when he came across a tough word because Thomas knew Angela wouldn’t judge him for not knowing.

After the reading session ended, there was time for Thomas to bond with Angela by giving her treats and building a house for her made of soft blocks. Thomas’s mother Melissa said, “Thomas loves dogs and I want him to read, so this is the perfect match.”

Emma S. Clark Library holds their programs on Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 4:45 to 5:15 p.m. Reservations are required by calling 631-941-4080.

Harborfields Public Library, Tail Waggin’ Tales
At Harborfields Public Library, children can have their parents reserve a spot to read to a dog in their Tail Waggin’ Tales program. Since 2004, the program has brought together the calm creatures and young patrons to read aloud. “An animal is not judgmental and the kids feel that,” said Patricia Moisan, director of Youth and Family Services at the library.

Cutch, a golden retriever, is the dog of the hour. Handler Sue Semple greets the readers and their families who come for a 15 minute sessions.  The program is open to children Kindergarten through third grade and is held on Fridays. Siblings are invited to sit-in on this program, which makes it a family friendly activity.
Moisan spoke of a family’s experience with Tail Waggin’ Tales, “A mother came in and talked about how shy her daughter was, but when the young girl came in to read with the dog, she was not shy at all!” The program is an opportunity for children to become more relaxed with reading. Moisan feels it is a “really safe place” for children to take chances with their reading.  Unlike parents or adults, Cutch does not make any comments about the child’s reading, he just relaxes and listens.

Olivia Cortez reads ‘Click Clack Moo’ to Barbie the therapy dog at Huntington Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Olivia Cortez reads ‘Click Clack Moo’ to Barbie the therapy dog at Huntington Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

The library will be hosting a weekend program in the near future, where the handler or librarian read a story while families interact with a dog. Please refer to their event schedule to find out the exact dates.
Tail Waggin’ Tales happens twice a month on Fridays, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., with four 15-minute reading sessions. If you are interested in reserving time with Cutch, contact Harborfields Library at 631-757-4200.

Huntington Public Library, Puppy Pals
Huntington Public Library holds their Puppy Pals program monthly, alternating between the Main Library on Main Street in Huntington and their branch in Huntington Station, on New York Avenue. The Library invites dogs who are part of Therapy Dogs International’s “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” program each month for a half-hour reading session. Laura Giuliani, head of Youth and Parent Services, said the library has been doing this for the past seven years. “It allows children who may not be confident in reading to sit with a dog and read. All the kids love it!” On the most recent Thursday visit, Ana O’Brien, the handler who organizes the dogs that visit the library, brought her ten-year-old Portuguese water dog, Nina, who was wearing pink bunny ears. “Reading is important. It can be intimidating, and so with our costumes and pets we can make it a little better,” said O’Brien.

Burt Rowley, who brings his six-year-old Vizsla, Maggie, feels it is very helpful for children who are afraid to read. He told the story of a child who has been coming  to the program since 2011, adding “he’s become a very good reader.” All of the handlers are passionate about their dogs and the children who come to read to their companions. Terry Gallogly brought her Labradoodles, Barbie and Ken. “I always believed in the connection between animals and humans,” said Gallogly.

On this particular day, first grader Olivia Cortez brought the book, “Click Clack Moo,” to read to the Barbie. Her mother, Jennifer Cortez, said that Olivia practiced with the book before she came. As Olivia worked her way through the book, she took some time out to smile and pet Barbie while receiving words of encouragement from Gallogly. “I just want to stay here forever!” Olivia exclaimed.

Words such as hers are a testament to how powerful a program such as Puppy Pals is to these youngsters and their families. It’s a feel-good experience that can only encourage continued reading. The Puppy Pals program is held monthly, alternating between library locations, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Call the library at 631-427-5165 for reservations.

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