By CHRISTINE DAVIS
Palms West Monthly
Posted June 1, 2012
WEST PALM BEACH — For those of us who cringe at the thought of having to give a speech in public, just imagine the anxiety many grade schoolers face when called on to read aloud to their class.
But thanks to an innovative reading program at the Mandel Public Library in West Palm Beach, young students are able to build confidence in their reading skills and at the same time bond with a four-legged furry bundle of love.
The program, called Dog Tales, gets rave reviews from kids and happy wags and delighted woofs from the five therapy dogs that listen to every word.
How can dogs help kids read? Actually, it’s quite simple.
Kids get a safe place to practice their reading with an appreciative and non judgemental audience – a dog – under the guidance of a patient adult – the dog’s owner. And when the reading is over, every child gets to leave with a free book, thanks to new funding through the West Palm Beach Public Library Association.
So, what’s in it for the dogs? That’s simple, too.
The dogs get to sleep on a beanbag chair if they feel so inclined. They get petted, appreciated and receive tons of attention and maybe even a treat or two.
It’s hard to tell who enjoys it more – the kids or the dogs.
“It’s fun,” said Autumn McCray, 6, a kindergartener at Northboro Elementary School in West Palm Beach. “I like to read.”
Her dog of choice at the library is usually Kermit, a Newfoundland owned by Jupiter resident Bonnie Giacovelli.
“I love Kermit because he’s so cute and he likes to listen,” Autumn said. “It’s the funniest thing when he wags his tail. He makes funny noises and when he lies on his back, I rub his tummy.
“He’s adorable to read to. It gives me practice because it feels like you are reading to someone, but you are reading to a dog.”
As a matter of fact, she loves reading to Kermit so much that now she has a Bichon Frise named Prince, said her grandmother, Marjorie Donovan, who takes Autumn to Dog Tales. “It’s her dog, but her grandmom takes care of him,” she said.
Not that Donovan minds.
“We met Bonnie and Kermit at a dog show and she told us about Dog Tales, so we started going to the library to read to Kermit,” said Donovan. “It’s a joy for me to watch. Autumn loves Kermit to death. She enjoys reading and this is an additional way to keep her interested in reading.”
Giacovelli, who’s been volunteering her time – and Kermit’s – for more than a year, is no stranger to working with therapy dogs.
“I used to do therapy work in hospitals with my first Newfoundland, but I have multiple sclerosis and I can’t risk my health, so I wanted to get involved in reading programs,” Giacovelli said.
“I got Kermit certified as a therapy dog through Delta Society’s Pet Partners and then I did the book work for the Reading Education Assistance Dogs Program, which taught me how to work with the dog and children,” she added.
Kermit was a good candidate for pet therapy, she said. “He’s my third service dog and I have a degree in zoology. His breeder is a friend of mine and I chose Kermit for his aptitude as a service dog. He’s confident, not too independent, recovers quickly from things that startle him. He’s smart and he runs fast.
“Newfoundands, as a breed, their hallmark is sweetness in temperament and Kermit possesses that temperament,” she said.
He has infinite patience, and kids can do just about anything to him and he doesn’t care.
“Stick a finger up his nostril. Pull his hair. He’s like, ‘OK. I’ll take it.’ He adores children and can’t wait to go to Dog Tales. When we are in the car, he gets all excited.
“I knew he would be perfect.”
And she gets her share of laughter, too. “We’ve been doing this for about a year and a half. Kermit has some peculiar habits that the kids think are funny. He loves to be on his back for belly rubs, and he sleeps upside down. He snorts a lot when the kids are reading to him and he makes everybody laugh.”
The kids are fun to watch, too, she said. “They’ll take a book and put it in front of him so he can see the pictures.”
Reading to dogs – it’s not a new idea, said Jennifer McQuown, youth services manager at Mandel Public Library.
“It’s been done in schools and other libraries. Our staff member, Judy Hillberg, she thought we should do it here. Our staff is really excited to encourage kids to fall in love with reading.”
Part of the library’s children programming for the past four years, Dog Tales really took off in the library’s new location, she said. “For the 2011–2012 school year, we had more than a thousand children reading to the dogs.”
A little nook in the library has been carved out for the occasion. A billboard with a picture of the dog announces when the dog will be in. In that special corner, beanbag chairs and bins of books, along with a water bowl for the dog, are set up ready and waiting.
A staff member will walk around the library, signing up the kids, and sometimes, if the dog arrives early, it walks around, kind of like a Dog Tale advertisement.
Kids as young as three can participate, McQuown said. “If a child is not comfortable reading print, we have pictures and a magnetic board, so that kids can tell a story that way. Learning to read is not just about the alphabet, it’s also about learning the structure of our speech.”
The program provides a safe place, free of criticism, she noted. “No one laughs at the kids if they mispronounce. At school, if their reading is not up to par, other kids may make fun of them. Reading-aloud skills don’t come easily for every child. One year, we had a very shy sixth grader come and practice his reading.
“And because we are in downtown West Palm Beach, our demographics include the wealthiest and the poorest in the county, with 95 percent on free and reduced lunches. Some of the children will walk two or three miles to come here because we have air-conditioning and computers.
“For some of the children, to come here and sit next to a dog and compassionate adult, that’s huge.”