What do you get when you combine cuddly dogs, enthusiastic children and stacks of books?
One of the area’s most popular library programs for budding readers.
Twice a year for the last 12 years, the North Riverside Public Library has hosted “Read to a Dog,” a program where local children read books to trained therapy dogs during 15-minute intervals.
Originally the idea of former North Riverside Library youth services administrator, the late Arlene Kurzawa, in the early 2000s, “Read to a Dog” was pitched to the staff as a way to encourage kids to both practice their reading skills in front of non-judgmental furry friends and come learn more about the resources the library has to offer.
While a novel idea, at first the concept was not well-received.
“A lot of people were a little bit appalled at the idea of dogs in the library and [Kurzawa] pitched it as a great way to encourage reluctant readers in particular,” said Susan Locander, youth services manager at the library. “A dog will not judge you and will love the attention. That was the selling point that seemed to turn the corner and make everyone comfortable with the idea because it was new at the time.”
The program, which the library pitches as a judgment-free reading zone, is open to children of all ages who are independent readers of all abilities. Dogs coming to the program are all trained therapy dogs from PAWSitive Therapy Troupe based in Downers Grove. Dogs from the organization work in schools, senior centers and other rehabilitation locations.
“It’s a perfect way to enjoy a trip to the library reading to dogs, so if they don’t have dogs of their own, they can experience that companionship, and they’re reading and we encourage reading at any level,” Locander said about “Read to a Dog.”
Kate Brennan, a mom from North Riverside, began coming to the program three years ago with her now 8-year-old daughter, Grace. She says her daughter fell in love with the program because of her affinity for both dogs and reading.
“When you put them together, it’s a great program,” she said. “Our favorite part is coming to the library and having a new experience. It’s something different.”
At the library’s most recent “Read to a Dog” session on April 26, Grace took a seat next to reading volunteer Darlene Kania and her 5-year-old rescue Sheltie named Woody. From the moment Grace sat down and put two books next to Woody, he chose which one to read with his paw.
“I like reading to dogs [and] I like practicing skills I’m learning,” Grace said. “It’s really fun and you get to meet a bunch of dogs.”
Kania, Woody’s owner, adopted him from a St. Louis puppy mill and knew right from the start he had the potential to be a great therapy dog.
“Ever since I got him, there’s something about him that’s calm and I can’t explain him,” she said. “He loves the children to read to him and he loves nursing homes.”
Kania says events where children can practice reading and oral skills with dogs are beneficial because they allow children to fail without fear as well as become comfortable around dogs.
“There are some children that read to dogs and can express themselves,” Kania said. “If they make a mistake, it’s no big deal. Some children are afraid of dogs, but by the time they leave, the majority of them start petting the dogs.”
North Riversider Amy Connerty said the program has been a great learning experience for her son and daughter to build self-confidence and appreciation for animals.
“[My son] is nervous around dogs, but these dogs are calm and quiet, so it makes my son more comfortable around dogs,” she said. “I think it helped my son a year or two ago because he was nervous of reading aloud. This way, I’m not hovering over him and directing him.”
Connerty’s daughter Ava, 11, said she hopes other local kids will check out future “Read to a Dog” programs because of her positive experience.
“None of my friends have a dog and I think they would think it’s really fun,” she said.
For more information about the library’s next “Read to a Dog” program, call 708-447-0869.