As the biased parent of this lovable Rottweiler-Malamute mix, I look at the picture above and coo. Sylvester, a certified therapy dog with Therapy Dogs of Vermont, has just started a new gig at the Stowe Free Library. To him, this seems like the easiest job in the world: He shows up, gets loads of pets, cuddles and treats, and has an opportunity to show off his best tricks. But what he doesn’t realize is that he’s making a difference in many young lives.
Read to a Dog programs are springing up all across the country as a way of providing another outlet for children to practice their reading skills. Kids, especially those who struggle with reading or feel anxious reading aloud in front of peers and adults, find solace in reading to dogs. Dogs are characteristically silent, approachable, utterly compassionate beings that won’t judge children if they make a mistake or take their time sounding out words. Numerous studies have shown that these programs can significantly improve the literacy of young people. For example, a 2010 University of California study found that students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement.
Now every Wednesday in Stowe, local children excitedly sign up with Julie Pickett, the children’s librarian, to get a 20-minute slot to practice their reading with a furry friend. Sylvester is one of four dogs currently involved in the program. Also on rotation are an English bulldog, a corgi and a Boston terrier.
Sylvester begins his session by plopping down on a sea of stacked blankets and pillows that form a cozy corner for the readers and awaits the arrival his new friends. Kids come alone or in pairs and politely take turns reading to Sylvester, who does his best to listen attentively. I’ve discovered his attention is greatly improved if the reader scratches his head or belly while reading. I am in the room and have my eye on Sylvester, but do my best to become invisible and let the reading magic happen.
It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from my sessions so far. Last week a little boy came in alone and read a short picture book standing up, as he was still a little too uncomfortable to join Sylvester on the blankets. By the end of his 20 minutes, he was snuggled up on the blankets, petting Sylvester while comfortably reading a Carl book to him. I also love seeing supportive teamwork, as when a pair of girls took turn reading chapters out of the same book or when an older sister patiently listens to her younger brother.
I’m hoping that these sessions help build the confidence of young readers in a relaxing environment. If you’d like to visit Sylvester, he’ll next be at the Stowe Library on Wednesday, March 27th. Other dog library programs run in Burlington, Fairfax and Williston.