Dogs make more than just lovable companions — they’re pretty good listeners, too.
Through the Furry Tails reading program, churches, schools and libraries in the Wyoming Valley have had the opportunity to be visited by some friendly canines once a month to help local children learn to read.
The Wyoming Free Library hosts the program on the third Saturday of every month.
Children select their favorite books off library shelves and read in 15-minute intervals to a particular dog before switching to read to another dog.
Library director John Roberts said the library was approached by the program’s director, Helene Skopek, about testing the program there to see if it would be a success.
“We’ve been doing this since 2008 when Helene approached us, and I just couldn’t say no,” said Roberts.
Roberts said the Wyoming library gets three or four children who show up monthly for the program with two dogs ready to listen to stories.
After the program started to catch on in Wyoming, Furry Tails was approached by other establishments, including the Pittston Memorial Library, which has hosted the program for four years.
Kristin Boettger, youth services coordinator for the Pittston library, said they get anywhere from five to eight children with three dogs participating.
With over a dozen therapy dogs incolved with Furry Tails, Skopek said the number of children registered and the number of dog available determine how many pooches make a visit at one session.
One of the benefits for the children, Boettger said, is it gives them a set of ears to read to who won’t judge how they read.
“It gives them a chance to read aloud to somebody who will not critique them in any way, shape or form,” she said. “They can just read at whatever fluency they read at, they can talk to the dog about what they read and it’s just nice because the dog won’t say anything; they’re happy with the attention. I think on the benefit of the dogs’ side they appreciate the one-on-one attention.”
Roberts echoed Boettger’s statement about the judgment-free environment, but also said the program has helped children overcome other fears, such as the dogs themselves.
“We had one or two children who were afraid of dogs and it helped them overcome their fear,” he said. “It’s a benefit to the children and their parents.”
According to its website, Furry Tails is a program through Pleasure of Your Company Therapy Dogs, Inc. (PoYC), a not-for-profit organization based in the Lehigh Valley and is dedicated to visiting members of society who are unable to own dogs themselves, and bring them the joys of high quality therapy dogs.
Volunteers visit individuals in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, schools and hospitals, while children read to dogs in libraries and schools.
Skopek said dog handlers use their own personal dogs and register them through Read Education Assistance Dogs (READ) to teach them to become therapy dogs.
“We wanted to give back to the community through our dogs with Furry Tails,” she said. “The handlers have additional training for themselves, so they can learn different techniques to help the children communicate with the dogs. The dogs also have to be trained to be in the moment with the child, like we don’t want them off watching someone walking away. We want them in with us.”
One of the ways to keep the children intrigued, Skopek mentioned, is by making it seem like the dog wants to learn more by “talking” with the canine.
“I’ll ask (my own dog) Angie if she knows what something means and Angie will look at me and I’ll tell the children, ‘She doesn’t know, but says you do,’” she said.
Roberts said he always looks forward to hosting Furry Tails and couldn’t be happier that they asked him if they could try the program in Wyoming.
“I’m glad that Helene chose our library as being sort of like the test library in 2008,” he said. “I’m pleased and happy that she continues to come and that children are interested. I’m really happy with the program’s success.”
Reach Jimmy Fisher at 570-704-3972 or on Twitter @SD_JimmyFisher