It was always an uphill battle for Colleen Foti to get her son Logan to read to a stranger. So when he walked right over to a dog inside the library and began reading, she knew he had found the right sort of friend, and it wasn't human.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is really, really cool,'” Foti says.
Logan is one of many children who have reached out to a furry friend for reading support inside a public library through the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D) program with Wags for Hope. The program will be open to the public from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in Frederick. There, children can sign up in 10-minute time blocks and read out loud to a dog that is with its handler, says Carly Schilling, a library associate in the children's department.
“We find that as they're learning to read, reading to a dog over a person is a lot less intimidating,” Schilling says. “There is a lot less pressure to do well.”
The R.E.A.D. program comes to the C. Burr Artz Public Library once a month and also travels to different branches, Schilling says. The library stocks the room with dog-themed books appropriate for ages 5 to 12, but children also can bring books from home to practice their reading.
“When you're seeing a dog, it's a friendly critter and they'll just sit there and they'll listen,” Schilling says.
Wags for Hope is a nonprofit organization that brings animals to nursing homes, hospitals, libraries and schools, says board member Dan Grose.
“We do social visits to try to brighten the lives of people that we see,” Grose says.
The organization began using the R.E.A.D. program five years ago, which was originally developed by Intermountain Therapy Animals in Utah. In addition to the library program in which any child can participate, R.E.A.D. also visits schools to assist children in a programs created by a reading specialist.
“It is a completely nonjudgmental atmosphere,” Grose says. “The dog doesn't care if you're a slow reader or you have a speech impediment or whatever. It really just puts the child at ease.”
In order to volunteer with any Wags for Hope program, handlers and their animals have to go through educational and training programs, Grose says. The basic requirements are that the dog is calm in nature, at least one year old and up to date on its shots.
While most dogs in Wags for Hope programs are just average house pets with a heart of gold, Foti had such a good experience with the R.E.A.D. program for her family that she now volunteers in the program with her dog Toby, a psychiatric service dog who helps Logan with his anxiety.
“The fun thing about this program is that these dogs are just normal dogs,” Foti says.
When working with children in the R.E.A.D. program, Foti sometimes speaks back to them in Toby's voice to offer encouragement and keep the children engaged in the activity.
“I'll say, ‘Toby thinks horses' hooves are very big.' It keeps them thinking. Like, ‘Wow, Toby thinks that was a big word,'” Foti says. “I know my dog Toby is very vocal. For them it is like the dog is talking.”
Since Logan first participated in the R.E.A.D. program in the library, Foti has seen his enthusiasm grow, even reading to Toby at home on his own time.
“I know (R.E.A.D.) works, I live it firsthand all the time,” she says.