Therapy dogs are all ears for children’s reading program

WILLIAMSBURG – Twins Alexandra and Zoey Silva from James City County find comfort in reading to friends with wet noses, such as Tigger, the golden retriever and K9 Connection therapy dog. With the program Paws to Read, these therapy dogs lend a listening ear and a friendly face to children of all ages and reading levels.

More than 17 years ago, the therapy dog group K9 Connection saw a need for children in Williamsburg to have a nonjudgmental reading space, where they could read to therapy dogs and feel no pressure. Certified trained therapy dogs listen as children read, relax and enjoy their company.

Jo-Ann Wagner, handler of therapy dogs “Emma” the shih tzu and “Uno” the bichon frise, and visitation coordinator for K9 Connection in Williamsburg, has been handling therapy dogs since 1992 and has had several dogs in Williamsburg Regional Library’s Paws to Read program.

“Right now, we are doing approximately half the year here, and half the year there (James City County Library),” Wagner said. “We have about four to five active dogs in this program right now, and we have a couple on sick leave.”

Alexandra and Zoey’s mother, Vanessa Silva, said her daughters have come to the reading sessions multiple times and love the relaxed environment.

“We like that it’s a non-threatening environment,” Silva said. “So, it does two things for us; it gets them a little less afraid of dogs and animals, we like that because these are very nice and well-behaved dogs. It also gives them a chance to not feel like they have to have the pressure of reading to us, and at this age you are kind of just describing the pictures. So, it’s just getting them interested in the reading process, and we’ve been really happy with the opportunities.”

Allie Allen of Williamsburg, and her 4-year-old and 6-year-old daughters, experienced the program for the first time Sunday at the Williamsburg Regional Library and really enjoyed its benefits.

“My 6-year-old is a beginning reader, so it gives her confidence I think, to read without judgment by either other kids or other adults,” Allen said. “The dogs are listening, and they aren’t going to correct her. They really both just love animals, so this is pretty special for them.”

Six-year-old Cora Allen commented that she likes reading to dogs because she can enjoy reading and petting the dogs at the same time.

Karen Chaffee and Tigger have been in the program for almost three years, and said she has seen children gain reading and dog interaction skills simultaneously with the program.

“All the dogs they encounter here are friendly, so they can practice their dog skills without their parents being worried about the animals,” Chaffee said. “Most kids read more easily to dogs or other animals than they do to people who are judgmental.”

Each child participant has to have a permission slip signed by their parent before attending. The program has been coming to the Williamsburg Regional Library for 17 years, and this is the first year the program will also be at the James City County Library.

Morag Willey, youth services librarian at the Williamsburg Regional Library, said that this program encourages all children, especially those who have difficulty reading. It makes them feel confident, she said.

“Over the 17 years we’ve been doing this, we’ve only had two incidents with two former therapy dogs that were older,” Willey said. “K9 Connection have exceptionally trained therapy dogs and this program is a huge success.”

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