Some children are going to the dogs to practice their reading.
A nonprofit called People Animals Love (PAL) has a free after-school program where kids read aloud to therapy dogs and their owners, who are volunteers, in 30 libraries in the Washington, D.C., area. But after the libraries closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, PAL began offering virtual reading sessions over the popular videoconferencing platform, Zoom.
“Hello, everyone. We’re excited to see you. Would you hold up your books?” said James Haworth, executive director of PAL, who spoke to the group of pups and their owners, and excited kids ready to read on Zoom.
First, the group did a meet-and-greet before going into virtual breakout rooms for 30 minutes. Each child read to two different therapy dogs for 15 minutes each.
With so many children mostly stuck at home during the pandemic, the program has gotten quite popular. So far, 250 kids have signed up for the sessions.
“It’s new, exciting and fun, and a distraction from being at home, and a way to read,” Haworth said.
That’s also true for 6-year-old Lucy. She was sure a beagle named Hammy had enjoyed the story she read to him.
“I think (Hammy) understood it because my book was about animals,” Lucy said.
Haworth said the program helps kids improve their reading skills and gain self-confidence at the same time.
“A dog doesn’t care if you mispronounce a word,” he said. “It’s awesome to just have an audience that isn’t judging.”
PAL volunteer Kerri Schepers had been taking her Shih Tzu, Crusty, to some of the libraries. Now, she’s gone virtual.
“The kids get super excited to see him,” she said.
As word got around about PAL’s Zoom reading program, children from across the United States and Canada began signing up, including 8-year-old Lincoln from Richmond, Virginia.
He was thrilled to see Crusty, who was decked out with trendy green sunglasses.
Lincoln read one of his favorite books to him, “The Cat in the Hat.”
Lincoln said while he likes the rhymes in the story, he thinks the “dogs really want to see the pictures in the book and not hear all words.”
Lincoln’s mother, Sarah Brixey, said her son perks up when he reads to the pups.
“I noticed after the first time he did it how confident and happy he seemed, and he always looks forward to it,” she said.
Even after the Washington-area libraries reopen, Haworth said he plans to continue the virtual program.
“We expect kids to continue to come from all around the country, potentially the world,” he said. “And we look forward to one day welcoming other dogs from around the country, as well.”
Along with the reading program, PAL coordinates 500 therapy dogs and volunteers in the Washington, D.C., area to provide support in places like hospitals, veterans centers and jails.