Helpful nudge from friend
Mesa County Libraries use dogs to serve as reading buddies for kids
Peyton Behl didn’t mind that his reading partner on a recent weekday afternoon at the Fruita library licked his face and shed long, black hairs on the pages of his book. In fact, that was the highlight of the 6-year-old Fruita boy’s trip to the library.
Behl and his 8-year-old brother, Jonathan, are regulars at Mesa County Libraries’ Dog Ears program, which brings two or three therapy dogs to a different library branch every Wednesday of the month to listen attentively or lounge on their sides while children twirl a finger through their fur or pat their heads as they read to the canines. The idea is to get kids of all reading abilities interested in reading by giving them a non-judgmental partner who also makes a good hand rest.
Jonathan and Peyton’s mom, Lacey Behl, said the boys read 20 to 30 minutes every day at home anyway, but Dog Ears puts a special twist on that ritual.
“They read more confidently and they look forward to it all month,” she said. “It gives them something fun to do and I like the educational aspect.”
Each dog is registered with Therapy Dogs International, so they’re extra patient and calm with their young companions.
“It’s really relaxing,” said Dog Ears participant John Muncaster, 9, of Fruita. “It’s better than reading to my three dogs at home. They like to paw at the book and lick me.”
Mom Genny Muncaster said Jonathan and his 5-year-old brother, James, were cautious about joining a library program at first. But that hesitation quickly faded after their first reading session.
“Now as soon as we’re done with one session they sign up for the next month,” she said.
Any child can participate in the program but the library does have a sign-up sheet that typically fills up before the day of a Dog Ears session. Each sign-up sheet has four 15-minute reading slots for each dog available that afternoon. There are occasional no-shows.
The program started a year ago when Cindy Bennett, who owns an English springer spaniel therapy dog named Iris, moved to Grand Junction from Ohio. Iris had participated in a similar program sitting with kids while they read back in the Midwest and Bennett wondered if Mesa County had a similar program. Gail Yerbic, head of youth services for Mesa County Libraries, said the library had considered such a program for years but the idea had never taken off. Within three weeks of meeting each other, Yerbic and Bennett set up a schedule, recruited dogs and began getting a steady trickle of young readers.
The program visits a rotation of the Central Library and Clifton, Fruita and Orchard Mesa branches — picked, according to Bennett, at least in part because those were the branches she could easily find when she was new to town. Clifton is the most popular branch for Dog Ears, so while other branches host the program from 4 to 5 p.m., Bennett brings Iris an hour early to Clifton to squeeze in some extra reading sessions.
Bennett said the program helps kids get comfortable with reading and offers healthy exposure to a friendly pet for those with little experience or a bad experience with animals. Handlers help keep the dogs in place and help children if they get stuck on a word.
“Any time you can get a book in a kid’s hands, it’s good,” Bennett said. “It’s developing good habits, teaching them the library is the place to be. If a child stumbles for some reason, the dogs don’t care and they keep going.”
Barb Fulton of Grand Junction brought her long-haired German shepherd, 9-year-old Buster, to Dog Ears for the first time last week. He quickly became a favorite among the kids, offering kisses while golden retriever Tyler, a veteran of the program, persistently requested handshakes and let one girl use his side as a pillow.
“The kids seem to enjoy it so much. They don’t have the pressure of entertaining you, they’re just reading to a calming dog,” Fulton said.