At almost any given library, you will find parents and librarians sharing books with children. At Oakland’s Lakeview branch, it isn't the adults who are reading out loud, it’s the kids — and to an audience you might not expect.
Here are Lakeview, three kids are sitting on the ground with brightly colored books in their hands. It might be hard to hear, but they are each reading out loud. To a dog.
10-year-old Margarita came to the program today for the first time, and she just finished reading to an Australian Shepard. “I read to Griffin. I read Scooby Doo, Johnny Boo, and Dog’s ABC to him and he really liked it.”
She added, "When it comes to reading out loud, I can read to a dog. But in public? No. I could, but I stutter a lot.” Which is precisely the point of this program, called “Paws to Read.”
Leil Charrnot is the program’s director, and he says that dogs can have a calming effect on children. “The concept behind the program is that some children may have a hard time reading when they are in the presence of parents or teachers, but dogs are neutral. Children don't feel apprehensive when they read to a dog.”
Another child, Keira, read to Griffin too. Keira’s a little shy, and hid behind her mother when I first approached her. After reading with the dogs for a while, she announced to her mother that she was ready to talk to me. I asked her what kind of books she read today. “I read Elephant and Piggy, and one where she blows a trumpet. Then I read a comic, then I read one where two girls go to a fair, and that's all.” Griffin is her favorite dog, because, “he listens very well and he's really nice to me.”
It sounds so simple, but isn't that what we all look for in a companion? Someone nice who knows how to listen? Library volunteer Ben Westheimer says that Griffin has a lot of fans. “He's an exceedingly friendly dog to everything but squirrels.” Westheimer and Griffin have been helping kids become better readers for the last five years. He found Griffin at an animal shelter, brought him up as a family pet, and then certified the dog through Therapy Pets of California. All of the “Paws to Read” dogs have been trained to be around children.
“Paws to Read” only operates four months a year right now. Advocates are hoping for more funding to continue and expand the program.
Violet Angell is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.