Tail Waggin’ Tutors – Kids Read to Dogs

Tail Waggin’ Tutors – Kids Read to Dogs

Seven-year-old Davalyn Ursich cuddles up with Sherman in a quiet corner of the Wayne County Public Library. Her eyes shine; his eyes beam as she reads a book to her canine “tutor.”

He seems to listen closely, and to make it comfortable and affirming for this reluctant reader to share the gift of words and imagination that she is finding in the pages of some books carefully selected to build confidence by children’s librarian, Betty Lawson.

Lawson launched the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program several years ago with the help of Laura Vernacchia, a longtime fan of dogs, kids and reading.

The program pairs certified therapy dogs with children who need more confidence in their reading skills. Studies show the presence of a calm, attentive dog moderates stress responses more readily than the presence of an adult when children are reading aloud.

Photo of Davalyn Ursich of Honesdale, PA and her canine tutor, Sherman. Part of a program where kids read to dogs.

Davalyn Ursich of Honesdale, PA and her canine tutor, Sherman, enjoy reading together.

Essentially, reading to a dog eliminates threats of being judged. Reading improves because the child is practicing the skill of reading aloud, building self-esteem, and associating reading with something pleasant.

Tail Waggin’ Tutors is not an “academic-instructive” program, but a confidence-building experience. Therapy dogs are partnered with readers in grades K-6. The student sits on a cushion next to the dog, with the dog’s handler beside them on a chair.

Participating dogs are certified by Therapy Dogs International, which regulates, tests and registers therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, libraries and classrooms. Locally, trainer Sue Frisch helps handlers prepare their dogs to be evaluated to serve as therapy dogs.

More dogs and handlers are needed, but they must meet special criteria. Both must enjoy children, be able to sit and relax, be patient and punctual. Ideal dogs are cuddly, calm and able to sit very close to the student.

It’s not the breed, but the personality of the dog that matters. Lawson points out that a doberman pinscher serves as the licensed therapy dog at Stourbridge Elementary School due to its peaceful, friendly nature.

“We wanted our dogs to be involved in something good,” says Vernacchia, who actively volunteers with her golden retriever, Sherman. “In the program, I can see progress in the first twenty minutes or so. At first, the child is intimidated and their body language shows it. But the dog helps to alleviate that feeling and it’s so cool to see that.”

Participants are referred by teachers who identify struggling or reluctant readers who are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of their classmates.

Lawson hears lots of positive feedback from those teachers, who say the program makes a big difference. Approximately 30 children have attended Tail Waggin’ Tutors. Most have gained increased confidence, with one child even advancing two reading levels.

The 6-week program, which is held three times per year, features sessions of roughly 20 minutes each. Regular attendance is important and parents are asked to support the program by listening to their child read for ten minutes nightly.

“Consistency is key,” says Lawson. “A bond develops between the dog, its owner and the child. Somehow it works. Of all the great things that happen at the library, it’s one of the most beautiful.”

For more information, email Lawson or call 570-253-1220.

4 Comments
  1. Thanks for the info!

  2. Hi Preston!

    Thanks for your comment. Locally, you can start by contacting trainer Sue Frisch at yourdogsplace@yahoo.com or 570-729-8977. We wrote about her work recently:

    https://www.heronseye.com/good-dog/

    Sue helps handlers prepare their dogs to be evaluated to serve as therapy dogs in situations where interaction with dogs would benefit people, such as visits to nursing homes, hospitals, schools and libraries.

  3. Would love to learn more how a puppy can get trained for this program. I am 8 weeks old and currently a re-enactor in training at Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg. (Check out their page on Facebook and watch me grow.) But I could use some off-season “work” in a few weeks.

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