Getting children to take an interest in reading isn’t always the easiest of tasks, but those at the Mesa County Libraries are eliminating that stereotype with the assistance of a couple of furry four-legged friends.
As head of Youth Services for Mesa County Libraries located in Grand Junction Colorado, Gail Yerbic was constantly looking for ways help the local community, and engage children in fundamental activities to enhance their reading skills.
“Learning to read can be a daunting undertaking that spans several years,” Yerbic said when recalling many young students who often struggled with the task.
While reading may be a difficult task for some young children, it serves a purpose that lasts a lifetime.
According to a 2017 Oneonta Reading Journal, reading literature starting from a young age is significant because it provides students with the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence and creativity, as well as nurture growth of one’s personality and social skills.
Unfortunately, the fourth-grade reading proficiency scores of the children in the Grand Junction community were less than what Yerbic and the staff at Mesa County Libraries had hoped for. Only 44 percent of students were at a capable level, ranked “advanced” or “proficient.”
Yet, little did Yerbic know that she would soon be getting assistance from an unlikely fuzzy helping hand.
On a September day in 2013, a member of the community, Cindy Bennett, brought her dog Iris into the Mesa County Libraries.
The shaggy chocolate and white-patched Springer Spaniel was a natural with the children attending the library, and unknowingly offered them a lending ear when they read to her.
Just by being there, the dog was encouraging these children to read.
That’s when Yerbic and Cindy put their heads, and a few paws, together and created Dog Ears—a program that utilizes therapy dogs as reading aids for children in the library to help increase students’ reading levels and passion for literature.
“The children bring an intense sincerity to reading to the dogs and even in the midst of a bustling environment, they stay focused and read from their hearts,” said Yerbic.
According to Yerbic, although the idea of giving children the opportunity to read to dogs was “on [their] minds for 5 years,” initially the program felt challenging. Picturing a group of dogs of all breeds walking the community library, it seemed unrealistic.
But, witnessing a particularly tender moment between a dog and a child reminded her of its purpose.
“Two siblings read out loud to the dogs, and it is significant because their parents are both deaf,” Yerbic said. “For this reason, the parents explained, the children don’t read aloud at home.”
When the couple observed their children read aloud to the dogs, “the family just lit up for the opportunity,” Yerbic said.
In another language barrier-breaking scenario, one dog named Luna was specifically requested to be read to by a Spanish-speaking child, as Luna is trained to understand Spanish—and ultimately helped boost the child’s reading confidence.
All furry-friends are registered through Therapy Dogs Inc., among other therapy certified organizations. Any families interested in participating in the program can choose from an array of breeds such as Spaniels, German Shepherds, Boston Terriers, Chihuahuas, Golden Retrievers, and Alaskan Malamutes.
Organizations such as Therapy Dogs Inc. help to spread the word of the Dog Ears program to surrounding schools, in which children can get a visit from the volunteering pooches—to date Iris and her trainer Cindy have visited over 20 schools, with each institution ranging between 30 and 90 children.
“The dogs sniff, sit, hug kids back in their own way, and lay down,” Yerbic said of the various volunteer dogs. “The loving nature of therapy dogs in the environment drawing kids in makes me feel hope.”
As for the continuation of the program, Yerbic also hopes to encourage children to forget about the technicalities of reading but to simply enjoy the process.
“This program encourages the idea that books and libraries are fun and reading is something enjoyable. It is not about being a ‘perfect’ reader; we want to instill the kids with a love of reading.”