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Therapy dog program helps improve child reading skills

A child reads to cert
Hunter Morrison
A child reads to a certified therapy dog named Astra

Inside the Kenai Community Library’s activity room, 11-year-old Chase Erwin reads aloud to a small, captive audience.

The book, titled “Waffles and Pancake: Flight or Fright,” is about two feline friends flying in an airplane for the first time. While Chase’s human support team smiles at the book’s humorous storyline, one curious pup listens with intent, at one point even sniffing the hardcover.

The library’s “Reading Dogs” event is 100% voluntary, allowing elementary and middle school-aged children an opportunity to practice their reading skills with a certified therapy dog. The event was inspired by similar programs held by libraries and hospitals around the country.

“There’s a huge correlation between reading comprehension and public speaking, and being able to read aloud,” said Seth Wilson Gray, the library’s youth services coordinator. “There was a huge push to practice reading aloud, practice your skills, but it can be hard when you’re around your peers, when you’re around other students, because of that fear that ‘I’m going to mess up, if I mess up they’re going to make fun of me.’ So, how do you improve? How do you get better if you’re afraid of reading aloud?”

The confidence-building event was first held at the library in January and had a turnout of about 15 excited young readers. Participants in Tuesday’s “Reading Dogs” program had the chance to read to one of three therapy dogs in a 15-minute session.

“Having been a child who was afraid to read in front of the classroom, I felt like reading to the dogs was a safe environment for the kids,” said Suzi Stephens, who pitched the “Reading Dogs” event to the library. She’s also a part of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive testing and certification support to therapy dogs and their owners.

“There’s no judgment, there’s no expectations, no correction, it’s just enjoying reading to somebody who is willing to listen to you and not interfere,” Stephens said.

Stephens is the owner of Grit, an 18-month-old doberman pinscher who loves being read to. She says he’s a calm, obedient dog who's been trained in a number of public environments.

11-year-old Chase Erwin reads to Grit the dog
Hunter Morrison
11-year-old Chase Erwin reads to Grit the dog

“He just loves being around people," Stephens said. "It’s just really a gift to have a dog like him who is just so willing to share himself with everybody.”

For young Chase, the event is more than just an opportunity to practice his reading skills with Grit. It also gives him a chance to reconnect with man’s best friend after losing his dog, Kenai, a few months ago.

“I think it's a great idea to help kids connect with dogs," Chase said. "Some kids could be scared of dogs, and they come to this event and they could actually be friends with dogs.”

While library staff believe the event will help local children improve their reading and comprehension skills, they also hope it will provide children with a lasting memory of the library.

“Grit is just a happy, enjoyable dog to be around," Chase said. "He loves people and he’s calm. I just think of him as a great dog to be around.”

The Kenai Community Library’s next “Reading Dogs” event will be held on April 24 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Registration for the event is required.

To see a full lineup of the library’s calendar of events, be sure to visit their website.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL
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