By Ben Orcutt -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Dogs aren't ordinarily commonplace at a library. But with the Books & Barks program at Samuels Public Library, they're a welcome sight.
"Studies have shown that when children are having difficulty learning to read, sometimes it's just pure nervousness, and by having these dogs next to them while they're learning, it really helps relax them so their mind can open to learning how to read," says Michal Ashby, youth services supervisor at Samuels.
Jackie Smith, 62, of Warren County, is a member of Waggin' Hearts Therapy Dogs, the group that has been participating with the dogs in the Books & Barks program since it began at Samuels in 2006.
"When we first started -- we have a sign-up sheet -- and only like six to 10 kids would sign up, and then last year I took on the responsibility of calling all the parents the week of to remind them that the date was coming up for them to come and read," Smith says. "So now we have anywhere from 25 to 35, and the day that they come to read, the list is almost full. So we have a waiting list."
"Each kid gets 20 minutes reading time," Smith adds. "We have eight teams that come with their dogs to read with the kids, and the kids run in, they pick out the dogs. They get a reward, a bookmark or a picture of their dogs that they've read to. It's just been very rewarding just to see how they advance in their reading, and even kids that are scared of dogs come around to wanting to be with the dogs."
Pam Ostermeier, 65, of Warren County, has been a part of Books & Barks since its inception and now brings Buttercup, a 1-year-old Chinese Shar-pei, to the monthly program at Samuels.
"She's sweet," Ostermeier says of Buttercup. "She's not afraid of things."
Smith brings Buddy, a 9-year-old mixed breed, believed to be part Cocker Spaniel and part Golden Retriever.
"He greets 'em when they first get there," Smith says of Buddy's reaction when the children come to Books & Barks. "He likes to be petted and a lot of times he'll lay his little paw on the page of the book so they can remember where they're at while they're reading. The kids get a big kick out of that. But since he's older, he likes to sleep a lot. But I just tell 'em, 'Buddy's listening. He may have his eyes shut, but he's paying attention.'"
The dogs help put the children at ease.
"They make the kids feel comfortable," Ostermeier says. "The kids feel free to be in front of the dogs and talking and reading to the dogs. It's just a very casual kind of thing and the kids really respond to it."
Ostermeier says the dogs like the program as much as the children.
"They love to be with the kids," she says. "They love the kids. They love coming. They get so excited when they see us putting on our uniforms."
Smith says concerned parents should not worry -- that the dogs haven't bitten anyone and they're certified through Therapy Dogs Inc. and also are insured.
"We're not just somebody off the street, coming in here, bringing our dogs in here to read," Smith says.
The dogs help shy children to relax, Ostermeier says.
"New things can be kind of scary, and so they will come and they'll kind of hang back a little bit and Buttercup will go and give 'em a big kiss," she says.
"Scientific research has proven in studies about reading that one of the main issues of children, when they're struggling with learning to read, is they get tremendous anxiety and by having a comforting animal next to them, as their anxiety declines, their reading ability progresses," she says. "One of the most touching things is, time after time, I've had parents come to me and say, 'You don't realize that this group coming to the library has made all the difference in my son or my daughter's life. They're doing so much better with reading. They're developing a bond with the dog.' We hear truly wonderful stories and so I always try to tell Jackie that and the volunteers, because they're the ones who are doing the program."
Lori Barrett, of Page County, enjoyed watching her sons, Andrew McAllister, 14, and Alex McAllister, 12, interact with Buttercup and Buddy during a recent trip to Samuels Public Library. Barrett says she would like to bring the boys to one of the Books & Barks sessions, as well as her 3-year-old daughter, Aryn Barrett.
"She would definitely love this," Mrs. Barrett says.
Ashby says the program could be life-changing.
"I often hear from parents that not only is it changing their child's life because it's improving their reading skills, but it may be that special relationship that they've developed with the dog helped them deal with a difficult part of their life," Ashby says. "In other words, I think it does so much more than just helping reading. There's animal therapy in there and a little bit of everything."
Samuels Public Library is located at 330 E. Criser Road in Front Royal. The Books & Barks program is free of charge, with the next session scheduled for Dec. 19. For more information, call 635-3153.