A book and a calm canine companion are all Caroline Woo needs to practice reading.
Every Thursday afternoon, this 11-year-old from Setauket visits the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library for its Books Are Read to K-9s program. Caroline joined the program and fell in love with it last November, after her mother, Eydie Woo, learned of the club. But BARK didn’t just allow her to interact with a calm canine, it also improved her reading skills.
Last month for her birthday, Caroline asked her friends and family to make a donation to the program instead of buying presents. The $270 she received went toward training more dogs for the club and other therapy dog-related programs. For Caroline, reading to Patchogue Rotary Animal Assisted Therapy certified dog Malibu, a black Labrador, helped her tackle the big words she struggled to say when reading out loud.
“Malibu, she’ll … just sit down and they’ll kind of listen and it is better because the dogs, they mostly maintain one expression,” Caroline said. “It’s easier since she’s less judgmental than people”
According to Malibu’s handler and owner Fred Dietrich, the program hasn’t only helped her reading skills, but it’s also boosted her confidence. He added that he’s seen Caroline become more outspoken since she joined BARK.
Her mother agreed with Dietrich, saying Caroline “feels comfortable with Malibu and it’s translating into other settings.” The fifth-grader met Malibu when she started the program and they’ve been regular reading partners since. Malibu, like all eight dogs involved in the reading program, is PRAAT certified.
Stony Brook resident Jo-Ann Goldwasser established the Doggie Reading Club program, which is called BARK at the library, three years ago after learning about a similar program in Chicago. The Windy City’s Sit Stay Read program has served kids in Chicago’s inner-city schools for several years. Goldwasser wanted to help children overcome their reading difficulties with this program. Her club started with Rocky Point Middle School’s sixth-grade students and has expanded to the Comsewogue school district, two schools in Brentwood as well as the library. She plans to establish the program in Hauppauge school district.
Goldwasser said the school and library programs are somewhat different.
“Children who generally like to read, who go to the library, think it’s kind of a fun thing to come to the library and read to a dog,” Goldwasser said. “In the schools however, we go into … the same classes … every other week. It’s more academic in that we listen to the same children read week after week; we know what they’re reading [and] we know how to help them.”
Fellow therapy dog handler Linda Devin-Sheehan said it’s hard to track the program’s success in the library because the club is only three-years-old. A lack of regulars like Caroline also makes it difficult to monitor a student’s improvement.
Parents must register their children to participate in the library’s program, which is held every Wednesday and Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the library’s kids’ section.
According to the handlers, a dog’s patience and calm demeanor are helpful to students like Caroline. While the program has helped Caroline in the past few months, she simply enjoys being around dogs as they come in various shapes, sizes and dispositions.
“You can see [a dog] on the street and pet it and get to know it for a short minute but … you can already tell that they’re such a sweet dog and it’s nice getting to meet a ton of different dogs,” Caroline said.