Tails & Tales: How to build a therapy animal reading program

Welcome to December, folks! Let’s close out fall quarter with some puppies.

Jobie reads one of her favorite books
Jobie reads one of her favorite books

Reading with a therapy animal can help reluctant readers, disabled readers, new language learners, and anxious readers gain confidence and develop a love of reading. Animals have no judgement, speak every language, and possess the patience to sit through the 10,000th rendition of Eastman’s Go Dog Go. I’ve seen kids initially dragged into the library by their parents barely notice their halting slog through Frog and Toad (Lobel) transform into confident sailing through Dragon Masters (West) as they bond with their therapy animal. Here are my tips for setting up a therapy animal reading program at your library.

Develop a relationship with your local therapy animal organization. I’ve worked with Intermountain Therapy Animals’ READing Paws, one of many organizations that provide the training, certification or registration, and insurance for the hundreds of volunteer handlers and animals who work in schools, hospitals, and libraries. Training requirements vary between organizations, so look for an organization with clearly defined proficiency requirements for both animals and their handlers. Check with your library’s director or legal team and work out a liability agreement between the library and the therapy animal organization. Most of these organizations carry liability insurance for the animals on its registry. Your library may require all volunteers who work with children to undergo a background check. It’s common practice to have parents and caregivers sign a waiver before their child reads with a therapy animal.

Promotional handout for the Douglas County Public Library's READing Paws program, created by DCPL staff
Promotional handout for the Douglas County Public Library’s READing Paws program featuring Tony, the World’s Cutest Pit Bull, created by DCPL staff

Create a schedule that works for your community. If you have a large number of homeschool families, go ahead and schedule that Tuesday mid-morning slot. Traditional schoolchildren may do best swinging by the library after school or on Saturday mornings. The lesson here is know your patrons. Once you do establish a schedule, stick to it. Families need time to add a new program to their schedules, and like any literacy program, consistent practice is key. This may mean seeing if your handler volunteers are available to substitute for each other should a schedule conflict pop up.

Respect and love your volunteer handlers. Therapy animal handlers undergo expensive and time-consuming training alongside their animal partners to learn how to support young readers. Most animals need to be bathed, brushed, and have their nails trimmed and teeth brushed before working in a library. All the time handlers spend coordinating with library staff and their fellow volunteers is also unpaid, and all of this happens before even a single child snuggles up to their poodle with a copy of Hop on Pop (Seuss). As with all relationships you have with library volunteers, be respectful of their time and talents, and express your gratitude for the gift they give your patrons. Accommodate the needs of their critters, too, perhaps by providing a water dish and built-in potty breaks. Check in frequently with your handlers to see how they feel the program is running, and adjust as necessary.

Tony, Trace, and Jobie: Good Dogs
Tony, Trace, and Jobie: Good Dogs

Market the heck out of your program. In addition to your library’s usual barrage of press releases, posters, and event calendars, ask your local elementary schools if you can include flyers in their weekly PeeChee folder take home. Work with your school librarians to identify readers who may benefit from reading with an animal. If your community has an English as a Second Language (ESL) program, talk to those folks. Give a five-minute shout out at an immigrant or refugee community organization program. Get creative, and remember: cute pictures of puppies basically sell themselves.

Develop a day-of coordination plan. Work with your handlers to develop how the program should work for your patrons. One model is first come, first serve, with readers signing up at the reference, circulation, or children’s service desk as they arrive. This model allows readers to browse, read, and play until their turn. Other libraries invite readers to sign-up for a time slot ahead of time. Most therapy animal sessions last about 15 minutes, a good length of time for squirmy kiddos and animals alike. Handlers may have preferences, but most programs ask that parents and caregivers give their kids space and privacy to read. It can be helpful to have a staff member or library volunteer monitoring the sign-in sheet to keep the readers to their allotted time, ensuring that all interested readers get a chance to read with an animal.

Promotional bookmark
Promotional bookmark: read with a dog eight times to earn a free book!
reading-log
Handlers use paw print stamps to mark a reader’s attendance

Support your readers. Therapy animal reading programs are meant for kids who may have anxieties surrounding reading and libraries and have not yet fallen in love with reading. Greet these readers as they come into your library and make the sign-in process easy for them. Provide readers’ advisory to help them find engaging books at their reading level. Make these children feel like they help these animals by reading with them. The reading area itself should be semi-private so that kids don’t have an audience besides the animal and her handler. Most kids like to lounge on a blanket or beanbag chair, snuggled up close to the therapy animal. Kids will often smoke through a single book and have leftover time in their session. Allow them to pick a second story by stashing a basket of books in the reading area in a variety of reading levels and languages for these patrons, perhaps on an animal theme.

Now go forth and develop your own therapy animal reading programs!

 

Ellie Newell is an MLIS Candidate at the University of Washington’s iSchool and an iYouth first year ambassador. She is grateful to Terry Cuyler and all the other fantastic READing Paws handlers and to their beautiful, wise, and precious doggies: Jobie, Trace, Tony, Nemo, and Grizzly. Many thanks also to the wonderful staff at the Douglas County Public Library in Minden and Zephyr Cove, NV.