Therapy Dogs Unleash Young Readers

Photo | Sharon Allen Gilder Nine-year-old Luke Pratt reads to Goldendoodle Gracie at the Quince Orchard Library.

Photo | Sharon Allen Gilder
Nine-year-old Luke Pratt reads to Goldendoodle Gracie at the Quince Orchard Library.


Canine tutors from National Capital Therapy Dogs, Inc. (NCTD) were at work at the Quince Orchard Library on Feb. 11, bringing new meaning to the expression “dog-eared” as the animals listened to stories read aloud to them by school-age children. As they strode into the library’s meeting room to join their young readers, Gracie, a three-year-old Goldendoodle, and Bianca, a two-and-a-half-year-old Lab-Pointer mix, were proudly sporting their official vests embroidered with NCTD’s heart-shaped logo, a paw print, and the words, “Therapy Dog, please touch.”

A variety of picture books, including “Clifford the Champion” by Norman Bridwell, “Big Bad Bunny” by Franny Billingsley, and “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” and “What’s Your Sound, Hound the Hound?” by Mo Willems were displayed on tables around the room for the children to make selections to read to their four-legged friends.

Thursday evenings from 7 to 8:30 p.m., beginners learning to read and children who want to become more confident with their reading skills are invited to sit down in the library with certified therapy dogs on a comfy blanket and read in 10- to 15-minute sessions. An adult must accompany children for the first come, first served program where no pre-registration is required. According to library manager Ann Stillman, the partnership with the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program was established at the Quince Orchard branch more than a decade ago in 2005.

Maura Pratt, who has six children ages three to 20, has been bringing several of her children to the Quince Orchard Library’s R.E.A.D. program for the past two years. She said her nine-year-old son Luke has a reading disability associated with decoding. He is in the LAD (Learning and Academic Disabilities) program at Fallsmead Elementary. “We first started coming for Luke, but the other kids wanted to come so I ended up bringing them, too. This levels the playing field because the dog doesn’t mind if you stumble on a word. Luke really has improved. He went up three reading levels just from first semester to second, and I really credit part of this to reading with the dogs and his teacher Mrs. Mack. I never have to drag him to come here,” said Pratt.

When Luke was asked what he liked best about reading to dogs he said, “I have someone else to talk to besides my mom and my teacher. If you say a mistake, they (the dogs) won’t know what it is.”

Tim Hendricks, a children’s librarian II and head of children’s services at Quince Orchard Library, said, “The dogs bring this sort of informal atmosphere to it and that’s why it seems to work. Over time, the children seem to become more comfortable with the dogs and their reading improves. It’s a different atmosphere. They’re not under the pressure they are in a classroom.”

Ethan Gong, a first-grader at Little Bennett Elementary in Clarksburg, read Cécile Boyer’s book, “Run Dog!” to Gracie and several photo books created by Betsey Bahls, Gracie’s owner.

Travilah Elementary first-grader Linda Wang, who read four books to Bianca, smiled and said, “When you read to them, they just listen and they put their paw on the page to hold the page sometimes.”

Betsey Bahls noted, “I love to watch the progress the kids make. Some are OK with reading but may be embarrassed to read out loud. After a couple of months, one of the moms said her son was volunteering to read in class. We have some regulars that come, and we had an adult who came without her child because English was not her first language and she wanted to practice so she could read books to her son.”

Whelped in 1990, NCTD provides animal-assisted therapy to people in health facilities, shelters, schools and libraries. Tom Bahls, director of NCTD’s R.E.A.D. program, said, “It’s wonderful to be able to volunteer in the community.” He added, “There’s something for everyone. Everyone comes away with some benefits, and the children get some confidence in their reading. It’s not mom, not your teacher, no one who is going to judge you. It’s a stress-free environment and everyone needs a job, even a dog.”

Bianca’s owner and handler, Dennis Kamber, said, “I just love the kids. There’s something about a kid reading to a dog that just warms your heart and, for an old guy who’s done it all, this is the best part of my life. It’s just right up there with the best of them.”

For more information about NCTD, visit www.nctdinc.org. To find a R.E.A.D. program at other Montgomery County library branches, visit www.montgomerycountymd.gov/library.

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