Take a “Paws” and Read

Dogs can play fetch, learn new tricks, and make people smile. They can also … tutor? Thanks to a program called Tail Waggin’ Tutors, children all over the country can improve their reading skills with the help of a furry friend. By giving children the opportunity to read to therapy dogs, Tail Waggin’ Tutors allows children to practice their reading skills and gain confidence. The program was created by Therapy Dogs International (TDI), an organization that registers and tests therapy dogs and their handlers.

For over five years, Siouxland Libraries in South Dakota has offered the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program at all of their locations. Children in kindergarten through fifth grade can schedule a free fifteen-minute session where they can read out loud to a therapy dog.

Aldijana Bonander, a library associate at the Downtown Library in Sioux Falls, SD, has been a Tail Waggin’ Tutors coordinator for the past four years. Her dog, Rocky, a German Shepherd and Collie mix, is a therapy dog who participates in the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program. While the program runs year-round, summer is the busiest time.

“In the summertime, a lot of (children) not being in school, obviously, their reading tends to decline. So involving them to read to a dog, it boosts their reading skills,” Aldijana said.

Siouxland Libraries began the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program to combat the summer slide, a term that refers to the decline in children’s literacy skills during summer vacation. Aldijana believes that “having options such as Tail Waggin’ Tutors adds a fun program to help kids read during the summer months.” The goal of the program is to encourage children to read and to help them become confident readers.

This past summer, Siouxland Libraries has about 18 Tail Waggin’ Tutors, all of whom are members of Therapy Dogs International. In order to be certified by TDI, dogs need to pass an initial TDI behavior exam. Aldijana said the dogs have to be well-behaved around people of all ages, and they have to react positively to different elements such as wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, loud noises, and distractions. For those volunteers that are interested in becoming Tail Waggin’ Tutors, they are required to attend a separate orientation with TDI to receive further training.

The Tail Waggin’ Tutors program usually takes place in the library’s children’s area or in a conference room, and handlers can choose how often they want to volunteer. Some of the therapy dogs also volunteer at nearby school districts.

“We oftentimes see the kids that are scared of dogs,” Aldijana said. “By the time the fifteen-minute session is over, they are doing great, and they are reading right next to the dog.”

Aldijana knows that reading to a dog can benefit students in a variety of ways. In addition to boosting reading skills, Tail Waggin’ Tutors helps kids improve their self-esteem, speaking skills, and confidence.

The kids realize that the dogs are not judging them in any shape or form and as long as they are reading to the dog and petting them the doggies are in heaven and the kiddos get to enjoy some doggie company,” Aldijana said.

Her favorite part of the program is “seeing the child reading to the dog open up and get animated while they read.” She also added that some kids are shy about reading aloud, but “reading to a dog makes the shyness go away.”

In addition to Tail Waggin’ Tutors, Siouxland Libraries also hosts a variety of other programs for children, such as sewing club, art adventures, STEM programs, and storytime.

To learn more about Therapy Dogs International, visit www.tdi-dog.org, and contact your local library to find a Tail Waggin’ Tutors program near you.

Brooklynn Gross

Brooklynn Gross, 18, is a senior at Harrisburg High School in Harrisburg, South Dakota. She enjoys reading, writing, playing piano, and volunteering. Brooklynn published a children's book about dental health, and she also teaches students about healthy-lifestyle topics through the South Dakota Teens as Teachers program. She hopes to become a high school English teacher and a children's book author.

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