Photo: Daniel Meigs
On a sunny Saturday morning in June, two children at the Nashville Public Library’s Edmondson Pike branch aren’t outside at the busy playground. Instead they’re lined up, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to read for 15 uninterrupted minutes.
The appeal for the kids, in part, is Zarth, a hefty German shepherd who’s just lumbered into the library.
A young girl, first in line and eager to begin, has brought several books about dogs, which she will spend her quarter-hour session reading to Zarth, a therapy dog accompanied by his trainer, Toney Baily. As the girl enters the reading room with Zarth and Toney, the boy signed up for the second session is already in line, explaining the plot of his Star Wars book to anyone who will listen.
The program that has kids on a waiting list to spend their Saturday reading indoors is called READing Paws. The program includes more than 60 dog-and-trainer pairs who regularly visit libraries, schools and bookstores in the Nashville area.
“For kids, when they get to go into that space, it’s an uninterrupted space,” says Cassie Welch, the children’s librarian at the Edmondson Pike library. “They can build their confidence in reading, but it’s also an assessment-free, judgment-free zone where they can build their literacy skills. Toney will help them if they need help, and Zarth is a very calming presence. And the kids really connect with a fluffy thing.”
The reading program was on hiatus when Welch arrived as the new children’s librarian earlier this year. She’d heard about it while working at other Nashville library branches, and upon learning of Edmondson Pike’s previous relationship with Zarth and Toney, she thought, “Yes, please — let’s continue this.” The program has been full with a waiting list since they picked it back up in February.
Nashville Public Library has similar programs at its Bellevue, Green Hills and downtown branches. Merilee Kelley, who leads the regional READing Paws group, says she’s worked with the reading program for nearly two decades.
“It started out with a service dog that flunked out,” says Kelley. “I had this brilliant dog and had no idea what to do with her, so we had her evaluated as a therapy dog, which was an easy jump for a flunkee service dog.”
Kelley hooked up with the national Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, based in Utah, and established the regional group, which covers Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. The group trains dogs and handlers and assists with placement at schools and libraries.
She says volunteers like Toney often work in their own neighborhoods.
“They’re all people who live in that community, so they want to do things and volunteer within their community,” she says. “The volunteers volunteer longer and do more when it’s right there in their own community.”
Kelley has also brought therapy dogs into hospital settings, where she says she’s found evidence that supports her own theories about canines.
“I work a lot in the children’s hospital, and I used to work in the trauma ICU, and of course everybody in there is hooked up to a monitor,” says Kelley. “You can watch the heart rate and the blood pressure, all of those things, you can actually see them go down on the monitor the longer they work with the dog and pet the dog and stroke the dog and connect with the animal. It just calms and softens everything.”
The same, trainers and librarians say, is true of children reading to dogs. Kids with low self-esteem find confidence; students with a hard time reading find more forgiving ears. A study published last year in the academic journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that the presence of a dog had at least minor short-term benefits for third-grade students’ reading performance, with the potential for more substantial effects in repeated sessions with dogs.
“There’s no judgment there,” Kelley says. “The dogs, all they want to do is have someone pay attention to them. And so if they stumble over their words or they can’t figure it out, the dogs are patient. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you. If you make a mistake, they don’t care. That’s fine. They just want somebody to read to them.”