Weekly program pairs young readers with pooches

A Dog Day Afternoon at the Library

  Boy and his Dog  
Cody Baggerman reads ‘Henry and Mudge’ to Mocha. Photo by Len Villano.

Mocha, an almost 10-year-old Golden Retriever/Husky mix, entered the Sturgeon Bay branch of the Door County Library on a recent Thursday afternoon with her human, Tracy Robinson, at her side. Looking alert and draped in a blue jacket that identifies her as a therapy dog, Mocha was ready to go to work in the library’s Read to Rover program.

Eagerly awaiting Mocha’s arrival is 8-year-old Cody Baggerman, who is in the children’s department of the library for the second week in a row with his grandmother, Sally Teich of Sturgeon Bay. They’ve returned so Cody can read to a therapy dog.

“The first thing Cody said this morning was ‘Grandma, can I go read to the dogs today?’,” Sally Teich said. “This is only the second time he’s been here, but he really enjoys it.”

The idea behind the popular reading to canines program (it goes by many names in library programs – They’re All Ears, Paws to Listen, or, as it is known here, Read to Rover) is that early readers gain confidence in their skills by reading to non-judgmental beings, or as Youth Services Librarian Beth Lokken said, “You know, I have never once heard Mocha correct anyone’s pronunciation.”

Recent studies by the schools of veterinary medicine at Tufts University and the University of California-Davis have confirmed the value of participating in reading to dogs programs. Students who read to therapy dogs weekly in a 10-week program showed an average improvement of 12 percent in reading skills. Educators who have worked with the program have also reported an overall better attitude to learning from participating students.

Lokken said she has seen the resulting confidence building the reading program has given to young readers since the program started in March 2012.

“There was a little girl last year whose grandmother brought her and her sister. When she came in the first time, she was so timid. She read falteringly,” Lokken said. “At the end of three months time, she was reading smoothly to this dog every time. For her, it made a massive difference. If there’s just one, that’s enough.”

While Tracy Robinson takes a seat in a rocking chair, Mocha stretches out on the floor and Cody settles in next to her to read Henry and Mudge, the first in a series of books about a boy and his 182-pound English Mastiff.

As he quietly reads to Mocha, Cody also pets her. She rolls onto her back for a little belly rub, obviously enjoying the attention.

Dogs in Therapy    
(Left to right) Cody Baggerman and his grandmother, Sally Teich, rub Mocha’s belly with owner Tracy Robinson. Photo by Len Villano.

“She turned out to be one of the best dogs,” Robinson says of Mocha. “She’s got a great attitude. She loves other dogs and she loves people. She has no reservations.”

“The dogs are the most relaxed, wonderful, sweet-tempered creatures you’ve ever seen,” Lokken said. “The kids really enjoy themselves and the parents and grandparents are just fascinated to watch the kids interact with the animals. It’s really wonderful.”

She said the therapy reading dog program idea was borrowed “fair and square” from another librarian and began at the Sturgeon Bay branch with the help of Bob Goggins and his young Golden Retriever, Barley.

“Barley’s only 2 years old, but you’d think he’s much older,” Lokken said. “It was Barley for the longest time, and then there was a point when he couldn’t come in. Bob talked to his friend, Tracy, who has two therapy dogs, and asked her to come in. She enjoyed it so much that she wants to continue with the little ones.”

For the past two months, Tracy Robinson has been trading off between Mocha and Igloo, a white Boxer who is deaf. Both dogs are graduates of the Fox Valley Humane Association’s therapy dog program.

Each child who reads to one of Robinson’s dogs takes home a bookmark with a photo of that dog and details such as the dog’s birthdate and favorite things, which, according to his grandmother, caused Cody to do a double take when he took home his first bookmark after working with Igloo, the deaf boxer. Cody was concerned that his reading had fallen on deaf ears.

“Did you see how she was paying attention to you?” was all she had to say to alleviate his concern.

In order to qualify for the program, the dogs must earn therapy certification.

“They had to take a few classes and prove that they can be verbally controlled and that they can be around active children, loud noises, moving obstacles like wheelchairs, and then repeatedly do it over and over to make sure it wasn’t a fluke,” Robinson said.

It was the dogs’ personalities that prompted Robinson to enroll them in the therapy program.

  Dogs in Therapy  
Baggerman bonds with Mocha after reading ‘Henry and Mudge’ at the Sturgeon Bay Library. Photo by Len Villano.

“I feel that her personality was the quality that wanted to be with people and put smiles on people’s faces,” she said of Mocha. “She wants to be with people, she really does. She’s got the personality that, I’ll walk with you forever, wherever you want to go, whatever you want to do.”

Certified therapy dogs and their handlers are insured by the certification-granting authority, which went a long way in getting the program approved at the Door County Library.

“That’s one of the reasons we go with therapy dogs rather than just someone’s nice dog. They test them, they train them and they insure them,” Lokken said. “The county doesn’t have to worry about liability issues.”

Reading to a patient dog helps the child’s reading skills, but does the dog gain anything from experience?

“Yes,” Robinson answers without hesitation. “They get totally enthralled with the attention. They are superstars. They love the fact that they’re the ones who are the star.”

While the program depends on sweet-natured pooches, Lokken said it is the equally sweet-natured owners who really make it happen.

“We couldn’t do this if we didn’t have those volunteers. We’re very lucky to have such generous people,” she said.

Having the use of Barley and Robinson’s two therapy dogs means the reading program doesn’t have to shut down for the summer, as it did last year when it was just Barley.

“I gave Barley the summer off last year because I didn’t want to stress him, but now that we have two others, they can trade off, so I think we’ll keep it rolling all summer long,” Lokken said.

She’s also hoping to expand the program beyond Sturgeon Bay.

“It’s just this location for right now, although we are talking about spreading it to the Sister Bay library,” Lokken said. “We did have one owner of a therapy dog who was talking about wanting to come to the Sister Bay library.”

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