Therapy dogs help young readers at the Summit County Library
Many people who own pets know the calming effect animals have on their lives.
Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) takes that concept one step further.
The Salt Lake City-based nonprofit organization specializes in providing animal-assisted therapy in the areas of physical, occupational, speech and psychotherapies and special education.
“Intermountain Therapy Animal has more than 3,000 volunteer teams in the Intermountain Area and in several states,” said volunteer Tom Hauser. “Therapy dogs go into hospitals, nursing homes and a number of other places to visit on a regular basis.
One of the places ITA animals visit is the Summit County Library Kimball Junction Branch.
Hauser arrives at the library every Thursday with a dog people can read to. The visit is part of the ITA’s R.E.A.D. programs.
R.E.A.D., which is an acronym for reading, education, assistance dog, was developed in 1999, and now has international chapters, according to Hauser.
“One of the missions of R.E.A.D. is to improve the literacy skills of children through assistance of registered therapy teams as literacy mentors,” he said. “It’s primarily set up for children who have difficulties in learning and emotional challenges and social-skill problems.
“It helps these children because when they read to the dogs, the dogs are not judgmental,” Hauser said. “The kids don’t get embarrassed if they make a mistake while reading.”
The children can pick out any book they want and read, said Hauser, who brought Bono, a yellow Labrador, to the library last week.
Bono, who will turn 5 in two weeks, was originally supposed to be a guide dog for the visually impaired.
“We got him as a 10-week-old puppy, and his career changed after he turned 18 months old, when we put him into therapy work,” Hauser said. “He has a unique disposition and is very calm and doesn’t get distracted.”
While the children read to Bono, Hauser makes suggestions to help the children feel more comfortable.
“Sometimes I’ll tell the kids to describe to Bono what the people in the pictures of the book are doing,” he said. “That way, the kids get a sense that they are teaching the dog what is happening. And that just throws the kids in a different dimension, which is why this program is so effective.”
Youth Services Library Kirsten Nilsson said the Summit County Library began offering the R.E.A.D. program before she started five years ago.
“In the past, they would have a month where they would do it every week during the school year, but after I got here, we decided to do it during the summer, because people had more time and were out of the house,” she said. “That worked a lot better.”
Children can usually read to the dog in 15-minute increments, unless they have an appointment.
“If they have an appointment they can read up to 30 minutes, depending on their stamina,” Nilsson said. “Sometimes the kids will come in for the novelty of reading to dogs, but occasionally we get people who really benefit from the experience.”
One of those readers is Anna Lillquist, who has participated in the program off an on for a few years, according to her mother Katy.
“The first time she did it was when she was a teenager,” Katy Lillquist said. “It hasn’t been consistent. Although she did it last summer when the library opened it up to the community.”
Nilsson remembered another family who participated last year.
“Their son was struggling with his reading skills and this program helped take the fear factor out of reading so he was able to read faster and more fluently,” she said.
The R.E.A.D. program is one of the ways the Summit County Library has adjusted to keep up with the times, Nilsson said.
“I do think libraries have shifted in the past 10 to 20 years, so they aren’t very quiet anymore — in a good way,” she said with a laugh. “We try to do community outreach programs. Of course we try to connect the community to literature.
“We have a Book to Film program, but in our Coalville Branch we have a knitting group that meets regularly,” Nilsson said. “I think these programs are our way of trying to stay relevant in the digital era. I hear people say books are going away because they can now be read digitally, but that doesn’t mean libraries are going away.”
The R.E.A.D. program was originally scheduled just through the summer, but Nilsson is hoping it can continue in the fall.
“As long as we can get at least one person do this on a regular basis, we can get others to latch on afterwards,” she said.
The Summit County Library Kimball Junction Branch, 1885 W. Ute Blvd., will host an Intermountain Therapy Animals R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistant Dogs) Dog on Thursday, Sept. 1, from 3:30 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. Children who would like to read to the dogs can make a 15-minute appointment in advance by calling Kirsten at 435-615-3903. For more information, visit http://www.thesummitcountylibrary.org. For more information about Intermountain Therapy Animals, visit therapyanimals.org.
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