Winchester library program proves furry ears listen well. Therapy dogs like Bixby help beginning readers gain confidence.

By Becki Harrington-Davis
Winchester Star
Posted Mar 26, 2011 @ 04:47 PM

Winchester, MA —
Reading aloud can be an intimidating experience for new and struggling young readers—but man’s best friend doesn’t judge. A reading session with therapy cockapoo Bixby at the Winchester Public Library could the key to confidence for animal-loving children.
Bixby, a small, curly-haired therapy dog, and his trainer, Marlene Ellin, visited the library March 19 to listen to children practice reading aloud in 15-minute slots.

“The dogs are trained to do several things, and one of the things is act as a reading support partner,” said Brittany DeLorme, a children’s librarian at the library. “Bixby is trained to sit and be a constant, silent companion.”
DeLorme brought the reading companion program to Winchester after she watched children’s eyes light up during a similar program at the Wellesley Free Library, where she also works.

The pair will also be visiting March 26. Slots are limited, but DeLorme hopes it will become a monthly event.
Bixby and Ellinare certified through Scituate-based nonprofit organization Dog BONES (Dogs Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support), where about 300 volunteers statewide make visits to nursing homes, schools and even college dormitories for emotional support. Therapy teams (dogs and their owners) must attend a three-session workshop in order to volunteer, and teams working with children for the literacy program attend an additional training session.

During the ‘Read to a Dog’ program, children go into a room with only the dog, the trainer and a book of their choice. The dog lies quietly on either the lap of the owner, the lap of the child or on the floor and listens. The trainer facilitates, but doesn’t attempt to tutor or correct the child—the exercise is more about getting comfortable with reading, DeLorme said.

“The purpose of the dogs is, they’re not judgmental. The kids can sit and read, they can make as many mistakes as they like, and the dog isn’t going to correct them,” Dog BONES Founder Jeanne Brouillette said.

Brouillette said ‘Read to a Dog’ events in libraries are also a way to foster children’s enthusiasm for books. The novelty of reading to a furry friend brings kids into the library and encourages them to browse titles. But the practice of using therapy dogs for education goes further—some dog/owner teams volunteer regularly at schools for one-on-one therapeutic reading sessions, stress relief and work with children on the autism spectrum.

When asked why dogs were helpful in such a variety of capacities, Broullette said it came down to a friendly dog’s nature.
“I think most dogs, the ones we have anyway, have great loyalty and are loving. They don’t care; if you’re happy to see them, they’re there for you,” she said.

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