<bt>Halley Elementary first-grader Alan Lutes didn't mind that his reading buddy was stretched out on the floor snoring as Lutes read him a story. Sleeping on the job is usually discouraged, but for Lutes' reading buddy, Chester, a 5-year-old yellow Lab, it's just one of the perks of going to work with his owner, Halley librarian Kathy Brown.
Chester is part of a program conceived by Brown called PAWS to Read, in which Halley students who need help with reading are teamed with dog volunteers.
According to Brown, the program focuses mainly on helping "reluctant readers" who dislike reading and thus don't practice their skills. The dogs provide an incentive for children to read, and students involved look forward to seeing the dogs each week. Sandy Moses, a third-grade teacher at Halley, said of the program, "Kids are excited and enthusiastic. It makes them want to read more. The student in my class [who participates] is always anxious to read with Chester."
Chester and Brown come in every Monday, while parent volunteer Diane Rosenbluth and her Shih Tzu, Sophie, visit on Tuesdays. Anne McCracken and her Labrador retriever, Pamona, come in on Fridays. Rosenbluth said that she volunteers for PAWS for Reading because she enjoys children, she loves to read and she loves pets.
"I've known her for several years," Rosenbluth said of Brown. "She has innovative ideas and is a very good librarian. She wants children to learn how to read, use a dictionary and learn research methods."
To participate in PAWS to Read, children make appointments to read with the animals, and teachers recommend students for the program. In a quiet corner of the library, students spend one-on-one time with the dogs; reading aloud from books, while the animals listen at their feet.
"Reading to dogs reduces anxiety and provides a nonthreatening environment," Brown said.
Not only do the dogs encourage children to read, they also provide help in ways humans cannot. "Dogs are nonjudgmental," Brown said. "They don't laugh when kids mispronounce a word. Kids aren't embarrassed to read aloud to dogs."
THE IDEA FOR PAWS to Read originated when Brown came across an article in Dog Fancy magazine that described a similar program with children and dogs called R.E.A.D in Salt Lake City, Utah. Brown decided that a program with dogs would be a natural outgrowth for a school library that already had mice, birds and fish.
Brown said that after she read the article, she contacted the people in Salt Lake City and a local chapter of the Delta Society called National Capital Therapy Dogs, who helped her set up the program. The Delta Society is a national organization that exists to meet human needs through service and therapy animals. All the dogs involved are Delta Society-registered Pet Partner teams and are required to attend an eight-hour training class for the human and a half-hour screening for the team.
Brown described the program as a success. "The kids love it, and the teachers are pleased with it," she said.
Many children have progressed from simple picture books to chapter books. Brown recounted the story of a student who didn't like to read at all but after reading with Chester is one of the school's "best library users."
As for Chester, he "loves his kids; he loves to come to school," Brown said. "This is his job. He knows what he needs to do, and he looks forward to coming. Every Monday morning, Chester runs out to the car and will sit and wait for 20 to 30 minutes."
Chester gets depressed when he doesn't get to go to school, Brown said, adding that he was so disappointed during spring break.
Brown would like PAWS to Read to expand, but it needs more volunteers and dogs to participate in the program. Brown is no stranger to volunteerism. When her son was in kindergarten at Halley, she volunteered at the library. She enjoyed her time there so much that she decided that she would switch her career from nursing and go back to school at James Madison University to get her master’s degree in education, specializing in library services.
Today, she and her two children ride the short distance to Halley, and every Monday Chester tags along. In her second year at Halley, whether creating new programs or listening intently as a first-grader reads a chapter book, Brown's goal is clear: "I want kids to enjoy reading."