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In Alachua County Libraries, Canines Lend Ear To Learning Kids

Love on a Leash's Joann Alam and her 8-year-old terrier, Barney, listen to stories from two children at the Archer Branch Library. The library is one of five in the Alachua County Library District that have launched therapy dog reading programs in the past few years. (Jacob Best/WUFT News)
Love on a Leash's Joann Alam and her 8-year-old terrier, Barney, listen to stories from two children at the Archer Branch Library. The library is one of five in the Alachua County Library District that have launched therapy dog reading programs in the past few years. (Jacob Best/WUFT News)

Kids pour into the activity room, and their faces light up as they notice Barney and Riley.

And judging by the dogs' reactions, the elation is going both ways.

As the children interact with Barney and Riley at the Archer library, librarian Taryn Brown frequently rushes to the outside shelves to accumulate more books for the kids. It appears as though there's something special about reading to the therapy dogs, something uniquely palpable — a sense of pride, joy and glee.

No matter how many times they read each book, the kids keep going back for more.

“I love reading to Barney," one young reader declares.

On that recent Wednesday, reading had essentially gone from homework to something gratifying and amusing. Such is the intention of therapy dog reading programs, which have become more popular in recent years throughout Alachua County, especially in county libraries.

Today, five of them have such programs. Archer began its in April, High Springs launched its in January, Newberry in 2015, the city of Alachua in 2014, and Millhopper two to three years ago, said Nickie Kortus, an Alachua County Library District spokeswoman.

The main benefit of therapy reading dogs is, simply, they're known to help children improve their reading skills, said Joann Alam, leader of the North Central Florida chapter of Love on a Leash, which partners with the Archer library to provide the dogs. (The other four libraries partner with different organizations for their programs.)

Alam, a former school principal and teacher, said therapy dogs have a calming effect on young children. Their presence permits kids to let their guards down and read without fear of judgement, which in turn helps them increase their confidence and skills.

“My belief is children have to love to read, and they can read to a dog without the dog making any corrections,” she said. “It’s a way of having children see that reading is a fun thing to do.”

'Absolutely No Judgement'

Debbie LaChusa said she has seen first-hand how therapy dogs help children better develop their reading skills.

The Love on a Leash board member said dogs draw children into reading. When prompted to read, dogs excite the children, and when they begin with their books, the dogs provide a reassuring presence.

As a child practices over and over without fear of being corrected, her or his reading skills improve, she said.

“If you invite them to sit down and read a story to a dog, there’s absolutely no judgement,” LaChusa said. “Where they may be nervous to read for an adult because they don’t know how to read very well or they might make a mistake, the dog just sits there and listens and doesn’t correct them.”

Kortus, the library spokeswoman, said therapy-dog reading programs have quickly become one of the library system's most popular events, both for library-goers and library employees.

“[With] children and animals, there’s that bond and calming effect that’s very unique,” Kortus said.

She said libraries are always looking for creative ways to make reading more enticing, especially among young children, and the dog program fits that goal.

Alam’s Love on a Leash chapter used to hold its weekly program at the Tower Road library, but when that branch closed for renovations earlier this year, Alam shifted it in April to the Archer library.

Since the program started, branch manager Brown said the Archer community has grown to love the partnership with Love on a Leash. She said the program has helped some of the regular young library visitors increase their reading skills.

“During the first month of the program, we had a total of 59 attendees” reading with the dogs, Brown said. “Children love coming to see [Alam] and Barney each week as he listens to stories that the children read."

Ross Woodbridge, manager of the Alachua branch, said the program has had noticeable, positive effects on children there, too. He said he has seen ones who traditionally have a hard time sitting still concentrate while reading to the dogs.

“Their behavior becomes calm and receptive,” he said. “It’s also very gratifying to see kids that normally don’t check out books come to the desk after reading to the dog with books to take home.”

Bringing leashed love to Florida

Alam first got involved with Love on a Leash five years ago when she started her local chapter, one of 70 nationwide but the only one in Florida. Alam, Barney's owner, and her friend Sherrilyn Pasternak, Riley's owner, were the chapter’s first two members, and the chapter now has five teams, each of which includes an owner and her or his certified therapy dog.

In addition to libraries, the teams visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools and the Ronald McDonald House.

In their efforts, they aim to educate the public about the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals, LaChusa said.

“It’s important for us to educate people and create awareness about what therapy pets are versus service animals and emotional support animals, because the confusion hurts all three,” she said.

An emotional support animal doesn't require any special training, and its purpose is to provide emotional support to a specific owner, not others.

A service dog is also trained to help a person but one with a specific disability, like visual impairment, while a therapy dog is meant to work with different people, LaChusa said.

In addition, a service dog is typically trained by an outside organization before being placed with someone, while the responsibility for training therapy dog falls on the owner.

Also unlike service dogs, therapy dogs require special permission to visit places like libraries and hospitals and must be certified to practice pet therapy. Love on a Leash provides the certification service to its members as one of the benefits of joining or starting a local chapter, LaChusa said.

“We like to kind of view ourselves being a little bit more grassroots, a little more welcoming, more friendly,” she said. “We try to make it as easy as possible for anyone who wants to get involved in pet therapy and not make them jump through too many hoops.”

In addition to dogs, Love on a Leash offers pet-therapy certifications to cats and rabbits — though LaChusa said dogs represent about 90 percent of the organization's trained pets nationwide.

Alam said Love on a Leash and other pet-therapy organizations help a wide variety of people, from young children learning to read to families at the Ronald McDonald House that might be in a tough situation.

“The joy of the people when they see the dogs is what I get out of it,” Alam said. “Most people know the dog’s names and don’t know mine, and that’s fine. I love the smile on their face.”

Jake is a reporter for WUFT News and a third-year journalism student at the University of Florida. He grew up in Roswell, Georgia, and has a passion for writing, politics and sports. He can be contacted by calling 770-342-9339 or by emailing jpb1997@ufl.edu. You can follow him on twitter @jacobpbest.