My dog Scout is helping me be a better driver. Because she gets nervous if I exhibit any aggressive behavior in the car, including speeding, passing or simply cussing aloud when another driver does something I don’t like, I have been working on being calmer in the car. As a result, my time on the road is becoming more pleasant and far less stressful for us both.
Dogs can also act as a calming presence for children, and an increasing number of programs are using them to help ease some of the stress many kids feel about reading aloud, which can have negative effects in other parts of their learning and even behavior.
Staff at the Toledo Library and Toledo Elementary School’s 21st Century Community Learning Center are finding that they are barking up the right tree with “Pages with Piper and Friends,” where a certified therapy dog named Piper and her person, Lynn Alexanderson, go into the school and let kids practice reading to an attentive and non-judgmental audience.
“Two summers ago, at the start of our summer reading program I had a little girl who had been through a year of cancer treatment so had missed a year of school,” said Denyse Marsh, children’s library specialist. “We paired her with Piper and it was such an incredible experience. She was a reluctant reader, but with Piper her inhibitions lessened and we watched her abilities and confidence blossom. I knew then that this was something worth developing.”
The program began in January and will continue monthly. During each session, four different kids will have a 15-minute period to read to Piper. At the end of the school term, all the kids in the program will have had the experience.
“I’ve been trying to get this off the ground since September,” Marsh said. “It’s really been a labor of love so I was very grateful when it all came through. Piper has been coming to our Story Hour for the last three years, so we have a relationship with her and she has a relationship with us.”
Piper, a female Labrador retriever, was raised by Alexanderson specifically as a therapy dog and has far exceeded expectations.
“Once Piper passed her canine good citizenship test, we started going to the library to get her used to that environment,” Alexanderson said. “Kids can be noisy; sometimes they squeak and cry but none of that seemed to bother her. After a little while, we found out that sometimes the only thing that brought kids to the library was if they knew that the lady with the dog was going to be there. When Denise approached me about working with a little girl who was behind in her reading because of being treated for cancer, I felt like Piper was ready, and she did great. It was a pretty incredible experience for me too.”
If canine facial expressions can be trusted, Piper seems to enjoy being a sounding board for kids as they build confidence.
“Piper actually looks into the faces of the kids reading to her like she’s really listening,” Alexanderson said. “After that first day of reading sessions, I knew we were doing the right thing.”
Marsh, a retired science teacher, has a lot of enthusiasm for literacy and kids’ education and the program is going as well as she could have hoped.
“For the first session, I read to all the kids from a book called ‘Madeline Finn and the Library Dog,’ she said. “It’s is about a kid who reads to a dog to help with her reading abilities. The first girl that was scheduled for a session said, ‘I’m like the little girl in the book, I’m not a good reader.’ So, I said, ‘you are the perfect person for this then.’”
Students in the J.O.Y. club (Jobs for Our Youth) of Toledo Jr/Sr High have been a part of Pages With Piper and Friends, too, helping to create slogans, posters and other media related ideas.
“I reached out to their director to see if I could work with the club on ideas on how to grow the program,” Marsh said. “The first time we met we had a big brainstorming session. Giving those high school students a project that is close to them made them feel important and they were especially proud when they got to be in the paper.”
Alexanderson wants her work with Piper to help increase awareness about the wide range of value supplied by canine companionship.
“It takes time and effort to train therapy dogs,” she said. “I used professional guidance along the way so I didn’t unwittingly reinforce negative behavior. But it has been more than worth it.”
Piper and her person still go to the Toledo Library for Story Hour, Wednesdays at 10:30 am.
“One of the first times I brought Piper to Story Hour, the kids were led in the song, ‘Bingo,’” Alexanderson said. “Piper watched the kids as they are singing, and normally she’s so quiet but then the kids started barking during the B-I-N-G-O part instead of clapping and she barked along with them; it was so cute and the kids just loved it.”