These dogs are Charlotte’s best reading buddies

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This is Rosie.

reading-buddy-Yoda

When I first met Rosie, a certified therapy dog, she was rocking this Yoda costume outside of Independence Regional Library on the morning of Halloween. And things just got cuter from there.

Though Rosie’s owner, Susan Bell, is an accountant by day, the pair volunteers in libraries and schools several times each month as part of Paws to Read.

Rosie is one of many certified therapy dogs in Charlotte kissing faces, climbing in laps, and participating in student-led story time.

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While I knew that hospitals and assisted living facilities have long understood the medical and psychological benefits of having animals visit for mutual love and cuddle time, I was intrigued by the link between therapy dogs and literacy.

So I shadowed Rosie during one of her regular visits to Barringer Academic Center, an elementary school on the west side.

“She lets the kids pet her and play with her while they read. And she’s a very good non-critical listener,” Bell says with a smile of her 4-year-old West Highland Terrier. “And the kids just love her.”

Which is very true. Walking around the halls with Rosie was like accompanying a rock star.

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During my time at the library, too, Roxy – the longest-tenured therapy dog at the Independence Regional branch – created quite the stir. Roxy was only in the building a few moments before she had plenty of teenagers and librarians to kiss.

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Many young readers grow to think of reading as a chore, made even more difficult for struggling readers who often associate reading with a range of emotions from anger to embarrassment.

And if the joy of reading dissipates, so will the time spent doing it. But on days when Rosie visits Barringer, kids are clamoring for a chance to read.

That’s because when humans spend time with dogs, we release endorphins, as well as the same hormone associated with bonding with our own families. (Nerd Alert: I learned that from a documentary I watched a few years ago—Dogs Decoded, if you’re so inclined.)

So reading with Rosie can increase a child’s feelings of happiness, comfort, and connection—much better emotions to associate with reading.

Third grade teacher Sade Wright says it’s difficult to know the exact impact of the therapy dogs on students’ reading skills. But there’s definitely a big difference in their excitement level, so Wright uses the reading time as an incentive.

In Ms. Wright’s third grade class, kids know that they have to “be good all week” and do their homework, if they want time with Rosie. 

“They want to read,” says Wright. “They love it, and they light up when she comes. So I get to use reading as an incentive for other positive behavior the rest of the week.”

Rosie spent over an hour at the school. In that time, three small groups read with her. Participating students got to bring a book of their choosing to our little gathering, and students took turns reading aloud. (Football books and Diary of a Wimpy Kid novels were big hits.)

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And a beautiful thing happened: Every student was engaged.

They sprawled out on the rug, pet and cooed at Rosie, and helped each other sound out words. Each student would, at times, listen intently to the stories read by others, but at other times, they’d sneak in a little silent reading before their turn came around again. 

In every group, when it came time for the last round of reading, students tried to bargain for just a few more minutes and then eagerly set about making sure everybody got their last turn.

At the public library, the reading experience is a bit different. Kids sign up for 20-minute slots, during which readers get 1-on-1 time with the dog. But as fair warning, with these celebs in the building, individual time is not always exclusively individual.

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Despite the different setups, the goals and outcomes of the program are the same across locations: Kids are reading. Because they want to.

And it doesn’t hurt that all involved are excellent snugglers. Everyone wins, really.

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Check out the Paws to Read program

They’re at these 11 library branches in the Mecklenburg County.

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Brittany Stone
Linguist. Fan of bookstore smells, hip hop, my backpack, and democracy. Freelance thinker. Beyoncé enthusiast.