INDIANAPOLIS — Learning to read can be difficult for some. Add ridicule and mocking from others further along in the process than you and it gets even more challenging.
The Indianapolis Public Library’s PAWS to Read program works to combat that by pairing children with dogs that are trained to be gentle and attentive.
“It’s structured for struggling or reluctant readers of school age,” said Joe Fox, juvenile public services librarian at the Wayne Township Public Library. They and other branches, including Eagle Township and Glendale, have hosted the PAWS to Read program for years.
“We’ve pretty much opened it to any children who would like to come — especially the ones who are just beginning to read on their own,” Fox said.
Simply put, it works because dogs don’t judge.
“In a classroom setting, a lot of times there’s peer pressure, giggles, snickering,” Fox said. “Kids feel a great deal of peer pressure. At the library we always want to promote good early literacy and reading skills. Absolutely there’s no sense of judgment from a dog that sits and listens.”
The canines that participate in PAWS to Read are specially trained to be placid around their subjects.
“They do an extraordinary job of paying attention,” said Fox, noting the dogs used in the program aren’t rescues.
Dandy, a standard poodle, is one of the canine volunteers at Wayne Township. Almost 6 now, he’s been a volunteer since the age of 1. Dandy spent six months in canine good citizens training to become certified. He also volunteers at Brooke’s Place, which helps those who’ve lost loved ones.
“He tried out for Methodist, but he growled at another Golden Retriever (and didn’t get accepted),” said Lori Tindall, Dandy’s owner. “For some reason he doesn’t like his cousins. He loves everyone else though. It’s so funny with him.”
Dandy’s older sister Gracie, a golden doodle, got accepted there and visits children in the pediatric ward once a week. Dandy was destined to follow in her footsteps somehow.
“He’s not as calm as her, but he’s still very good at it,” Tindall said.
Using her pets this way was an obvious decision. Before Dandy and Gracie, Tindall had two mean dogs. So mean that nobody else wanted to be around them. After their time passed, Tindall made an effort to find nicer ones.
“These dogs are so loving and wonderful that we couldn’t keep them to ourselves,” she said. “We had to share.”
That’s good because Fox said there have been many success stories to come from PAWS to Read.
“I know of at least a few families where the children did not enjoy reading at all,” he said. “Kids in Indiana need to have their reading proficiency tested in third grade. One mother who testified about using the PAWS program said it really helped with her child.”
It has indeed been a gratifying experience for Tindall. She noted one of the first families Dandy ever worked with came every month until they had to move. Their daughter would make gifts and cards for Dandy.
“When she started she really needed the help,” Tindall said. “By the end she didn’t; she just came because she loved (Dandy). To watch her progress was very neat.”
A dog like Dandy can help in other ways. Tindall, who now teaches accounting at IUPUI, used to be on the faculty at UIndy. They allowed her to bring Dandy.
“Test days were the best times,” Tindall said. “He would walk around the room and whoever had the most tension that’s who he’d stop by. They’d be sitting there writing and petting him. He really calms them down.”
Though PAWS to Read is one of the Wayne library’s most popular programs, it’s only offered from 11 a.m. to noon the first Saturday of each month.
“If we could do this program more often we would, but we’re reliant on the schedules of our volunteers,” Fox said. “We’re really blessed to have them.”
Participants must register in advance, and may do so in person at the library, 198 S. Girls School Road, or by calling 275-4530.