Weekday afternoons at Halifax Central Library are a noisy jam of students doing homework, borrowers browsing the stacks, and visitors gawking at the award-winning design. But in a quiet room on the second floor, a patient dog waits by a stack of carefully chosen books. It’s Hudson on Mondays; on Tuesdays it’s Colby. Both are well behaved, well trained, and ready to be read to. Soon a child – a reluctant reader, perhaps, or one seeking more confidence reading aloud, or even one working to get over a fear of dogs – will choose a book from the stack, sit down on a blanket with a dog and its handler, and spend half an hour reading aloud.
Colby, Hudson, and their canine colleagues across the city are volunteers in Paws to Read, a program offered to libraries across Canada, including six in Halifax’s system, by Therapeutic Paws of Canada. The program is open to kids in grades one through five. They sign up to read aloud to a dog on a weekly basis for five weeks.
Anders Balderston is a children’s services library assistant at the Halifax Central Library. He’s the one who chooses that stack of books based on what the kids in the program are interested in. The program has served 770 kids in Halifax since it began in 2007. “We could have 10 dogs going at a time and still not get through the whole waiting list,” says Balderston. “The kids come out and want to sign up for another five weeks, do it again right away. The dog has zero judgment. The best listener ever.”
Judy Power and her golden retriever Sophie have been involved with Paws to Read for three years. Power says Sophie is calm and cuddly – qualities that make her just right for reluctant readers to snuggle up and read to. “By the end of [the five week session] they’re reading better, reading louder, because I’ll say, ‘Sophie can’t hear you, she’s falling asleep!’ That helps them pick up their pace a little bit; the dog is really the instrument to help them do their thing. It’s really cool what the dogs can do and the influence they have on a kid.”
Mark Grant is the Halifax team leader for the organization and the dog evaluator. He says there’s a rigorous process for dogs and their handlers to follow in order to qualify for the program, but the rewards for those who volunteer are enormous, from watching a child gain skills and confidence in reading to seeing the weight lift from the shoulders of that child’s parents. He recalls being with his St. Bernard at a mall one day, doing some publicity work, when a young woman stopped to ask if she could pat his dog.
“She said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’” The young woman had been a struggling reader, who’d curled up with one of Grant’s St. Bernards to read at the library. “She went on to address her high-school class, went on to vet college, and graduated at the top of her class,” Grant says. “Her specialty was large-breed dogs, and the reason she chose that was because St. Bernards are large-breed dogs.”
Margo Bulpitt’s daughter has been through the program twice. “It’s just not as fun to read to us as it is to read to a dog,” she says. “So knowing there’s a day of the week she’s going to be excited to go do her reading after school is great.”