By Sara Butler
‘Read to a Therapy Dog’ provides educational and emotional support for kids
Walk into Mission Hills Library on a Saturday morning and among the rows of bookshelves, you may just find a fluffy friend or two.
The library boasts a calendar full of activities aimed to encourage reading, but “Read to a Therapy Dog” is not your average program. The monthly event invites children to interact with furry special guests: therapy dogs.
Branch manager Steve Wheeler brought the program to the library when he joined the team in 2010. Since then, the event has offered an educational and emotional sanctuary for children.
“Therapy dogs help create a very comfortable, non-threatening environment in which the kids are encouraged to read aloud to someone — a dog — who won’t judge them,” Wheeler said.
The pet-assisted program is possible with help from volunteers who own certified therapy dogs. They must be registered with an official organization, such as the nonprofit Love on a Leash.
According to its website, Love on a Leash “is committed to bringing comfort, happiness and healing to more people nationwide by increasing public awareness of pet-provided therapy.” The San Diego-based charity heavily relies on volunteers.
Recent volunteers at the library were Ellen Fleischman, who owns a Yorkshire terrier named Boo Boo, and Heidi Badger-Chrisman, a mom to a golden Labrador named Stanza.
The June 3 event was hardly hectic. The volunteers sat patiently on the floor, with books for all age levels displayed neatly on a cushion. This quiet beginning was intentional — after all, the program aims to provide a haven for tentative children.
“I’ll typically try to start small and get the child comfortable being in the same area, slowly working our way up to the child petting the dog if they want to,” Badger-Chrisman explained.
After 15 minutes, a toddler stumbled over to Stanza for a big hug. Then his brother approached, a smile emerging on his face as he cautiously petted Boo Boo. One by one, children in the library — many whom were previously engrossed with a craft project happening across the room — trickled in and took turns engaging with the dogs.
“A few kids are a little afraid of the dogs at first, but most adults and kids love seeing them,” Wheeler said. “Some kids practice their reading with the dogs. Many others just pet or hug them. Even most of the kids who start out afraid eventually warm up to the dogs.”
The therapy dogs can also provide comfort for children who are dealing with the loss of a beloved pet.
“Sometimes they open up about why they no longer have a dog, how much they miss their dog and how happy it made them to be able to pet Stanza and talk to him,” Badger-Chrisman said.
As a father, Wheeler understands the benefit of the program first-hand. His two sons attended the program and developed their reading skills with the help of a nonjudgmental listener.
“My younger son needed a lot of extra help learning to read and could hardly read anything at that time, but he loved the dog and would happily turn through the pages of picture books and tell the dog about what was happening in the illustrations,” Wheeler said.
Although the event is designed with children in mind, they aren’t the only ones who benefit from the experience. Wheeler said adults also enjoy the activity, whether they attend solo or with their kids. Fleishman added that she met a woman who was learning to read English who practiced in front of Boo Boo.
With the dedication of library staff, contribution of volunteers and positive response from the community, the pet-assisted storytelling program shows no sign of halting anytime soon. Fleishman, a regular at the Mission Hills Library, recognizes the importance of making the trip each month.
“I love going to the library for pet-assisted storytelling and working with kids because I want to contribute to the library being a favorite place to go to,” Fleishman said.
Mission Hills Library hosts “Read to a Therapy Dog” on the first Saturday of every month from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Contact Wheeler at SJWheeler@sandiego.gov for event updates or information on becoming a volunteer.
—Sara Butler is the web and social media manager at SDCNN. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.