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Book Buddies: Teaching Reading~Canine Style

What is your dog’s favorite book? I am pretty sure my old spaniel’s was “Where the Wild Things Are”. Being something of a wild thing himself, he seemed to enjoy hearing the adventures of Max in his dream-state world where anything was possible, even redemption. William (my golden Cocker Spaniel) was a fixture at the foot of my son’s bed every night at reading time. Just when I would think that both had drifted off into slumber, two sets of brown eyes would pop open at the gentle closing of the book. Both child and dog seemed to enjoy Kipling’s Jungle Book Stories, perhaps because they included a variety of sound effects from the reader as well as the human section of the audience. Riki Tiki Tavi got consistently high marks since it included a good deal of cobraesque hissing! Later in life I learned that shelter cats also respond positively to the sound of the written word. The spoken word in songs, poems, novels, short stories and even textbooks provide comfort and ease for frightened creatures in a shelter setting. I learned this by participating at a shelter in San Francisco where I was a regular volunteer. Skeptical at first, I soon realized that most, if not all, of the cats I tended enjoyed the rhythmic sound of a human reading aloud, or even singing softly. Reading time became a popular activity among volunteers and it was not unusual to see one or more of them propped up outside one of our kitty condos gently reading to several cats at once. One particular lady, a skilled musician, sang lullabies to them—quite a profound picture that I wish I had had the sense to photograph. Just lately, I have read several articles that deal in some depth with the subject of reading to animals—dogs in particular being the focus of this more formal research. This innovative program, called Shelter Buddies Reading Program, is already making a huge difference for animals at the Humane Society of Missouri ( The idea is simple: train kids to read to dogs as a way of readying them for forever homes, all while instilling a greater sense of empathy in the youngsters, too. “We wanted t help our shy and fearful dogs without forcing physical interaction with them to see the positive effect that could have,” program director Jo Klepacki told PBS News. “We launched the program last Christmas, but now we offer it once a month.” Kids ages 6 to 15 can sign up for the program online, after which they are trained how to read a dog’s body language to tell if they are stressed out or anxious. Those pets, says Klepacki, are the ones most in need of special attention and socialization. Once a child has completed the 10-hour training program, learning to work with the animals under supervision, they can then come back with a parent at any time to sit and read to the dogs. This simple gesture can have a profound effect on both dog and child. Ideally that shy and fearful dog will approach and show interest. If so, according to Klepacki, the kids reinforce that behavior by handing over a treat. Dogs who become accustomed to being in the front of their kennel enclosure are more easily seen by potential adopters as they walk through the shelter. But more timid dogs aren’t the only ones benefiting from the program. High-energy dogs, too, have show improvements from being read to. According to Klepacki, the response from the dogs has been incredible—hearing a child read can really work wonders in calming a fearful or hyperactive dog. Of course the primary goal of the Book Buddies program is a focus on shelter pets, there are beneficial side effects for the young readers. Sitting quietly and observing a fearful animal, children develop empathy with them. It is a peaceful, quiet exercise. They can see first hand the positive affect they can have. It encourages them to look at things from the animal’s perspective. That helps children better connect with both animas and people in their lives. Though in its early stages of development, Klepacki hopes the overwhelming excitement for the program will help it develop into a model that can be adapted at shelters throughout the country. Plans are in the works to expand the reading program to all of the Humane Society of Missouri’s shelters—and to cats as well. If my own small measure of participation in this gentle and effective program is any indication, it is a model to emulate in every community. The benefits to children and animals seem to be universal. Hats off to Missouri for their groundbreaking efforts on behalf of our beloved creatures.

Briefly, on another note, spring has definitely arrived at the Center—we have kittens! Three coal black and two soft and misty greys. Along with their beautiful mom, Sandy, they will be up for adoption soon. So, if you are fortunate enough to be anticipation a kitten adoption…We have the “pick of the litter” just waiting for a loving forever home. Happy Spring!

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