The Keller Magazine

A furry listener

Hannah Ulbrich, 7, reads to Nicholas, a six-and-a-half year old Golden Retriever, during a reading session at Keller Public Library Sunday afternoon December 4, 2016.
Hannah Ulbrich, 7, reads to Nicholas, a six-and-a-half year old Golden Retriever, during a reading session at Keller Public Library Sunday afternoon December 4, 2016. Special to the Star-Telegram

On a chilly, dreary Sunday afternoon, families began lining up in the children’s area of the Keller Public Library for an afternoon activity with exciting, worthwhile perks.

It wasn’t just indoor weather that drew these families with young children. Some had been here before, even on days that were perfect for outdoor play. Others had heard about this new children’s reading program called Tail Waggin’ Tutors and were eager to check it out.

During this once-a-month activity, the program brings therapy dogs to the library to give children the opportunity to practice their oral reading skills by reading to the dogs. For some children, this is an opportunity to gain reading confidence that benefits them in school, according to librarian Julianne Ingram, who introduced the program at the Keller library.

Tail Waggin’ Tutors was developed by Therapy Dogs International several years ago as a beneficial way to encourage children to read. It provides “… a non-judgmental listener and furry friend to read to that won’t laugh at them if they make a mistake or stumble over a word, but rather lie next to them and enjoy the story being read to them. The children learn to associate reading with being with the dog, and begin to view reading in a positive way,” according to a statement from the organization.

Libraries across the United States have had success with the program, including several in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so Ingram decided to launch it in Keller last June.

“We didn’t have much programming for children on Sundays so we thought this would be a good option,” says Ingram, teen services librarian. “It’s been very popular.”

On the first Sunday of every month, children ages 5 and above can sign up for a 15-minute session to read to a dog. The library has enlisted a small group of certified therapy dogs and their owners as volunteers for the program. The crew includes Golden Retrievers, Nick and Abby; an Australian cattle dog mix named Banjo; and Liza, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

The children can bring along their own book or choose a book from the library’s collection.

Early-birds can get their choice of dogs to read to while drop-ins typically are assigned a dog and a slot. For many children, the choice of a dog is less important than the chance to take part.

Arriving at 3 p.m. in time for the start of the hour-and-30-minute-long program, Georgia Godyn, 6, charged into the story-time room with her 4-year-old brother, Oliver, in tow. Oliver was too young to read but he was able to pet Liza while his sister read aloud. This was the children’s first visit but it won’t be their last. The family has a dog but this was still a big treat for the children, according to their dad, John.

“Our friends told us about it so we decided to come by,” John Godyn of Keller says. “The kids were so excited. It’s great practice for Georgia and having the dog to read to makes it so much more fun. It’s such a great idea.”

Nearby, Carrie Caldwell listened as her son Cole, 8, read to Banjo while his 4-year-old brother, Clay, focused his full attention on the dog for the family’s second visit to the library program.

“My son really likes reading to the dog,” Caldwell says. The Keller family has two dogs at home — a yellow lab and a German shepherd mix. Cole has tried reading to them at home but neither will sit still, Caldwell adds. “So we come here and read to Banjo who is so laid back and does nothing more than lick him in the face.”

Valentina Tamulevich, 4, arrived in a princess costume with her storybook “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See?” Reading to Abby is a good way to build her reading and English language skills, says her mother Alessandra Tamulevich, a native of Germany, now living in the Keller area.

“She wants three dogs and two cats but we travel too much for that,” Tamulevich says. “She likes to come so she can see the dog and practice reading.”

Stacey Mitry and her daughters, Amanda, 11, and Amelia, 9, arrived at the library at the opening time of noon to secure slots with Nick and Liza. The girls have participated every month since moving to Keller this past summer. Because Mitry’s husband works for the federal government, the family moves frequently. Their relocation from Switzerland to Keller meant leaving their large Mastiff behind.

“We’re such dog people so it’s been hard on all of us,” Mitry says. “We are trying to rescue a Mastiff but this is a great thing for us to do on Sundays for now.”

Both girls are proficient readers so the experience for them is about the dogs. The girls switch between the dogs mid-way through the 15-minute session so they each get to enjoy both dogs.

The dogs’ owners spend the entire session sitting with their pets and the children. For them, volunteering with their dogs is a labor of love.

Lynn Thomas, Abby’s owner, is a retired reading teacher. “This is a very good fit for us,” she says. Abby has been a certified therapy dog since 2012 and also works with children undergoing physical and occupational therapy.

Debbie Schwartz, Liza’s owner, says her dog also works with physical therapy patients.

Banjo, a rescue dog, is the friskiest of the bunch but he is smart and obedient, according to his owner Greg McCarter. “He chases his tail and jumps in the UPS truck to grab packages and bring them back to the house.”

McCarter also takes Banjo to area nursing homes to provide comfort to sick and elderly residents.

Similarly, Paula Green also takes Nick to nursing homes regularly. The 6-and-a-half-year-old Golden Retriever is the third therapy dog for this committed dog lover. Working with kids is new to him, Green says. “He really seems to like the kids. We both really like the kids and enjoy being part of this program.”