May 31, 2013

Tales to Tails:  Therapy dogs help youngsters
with their reading skills at Hatteras Library


I was recently taken aback by the sight of a dog bowl and a bag of treats placed on a colorful, neatly folded dog mat in the Hatteras Library. 

“What is a dog bowl doing here?” I wondered aloud.  Helen Hudson, the library manager, stopped what she was doing to tell me all about the library’s newest venture.

Ever innovative, the Dare County Library has introduced a new pilot program this summer at the Hatteras Library.

Tales to Tails is designed to assist young readers gain confidence and improve not only their reading skills but also their enjoyment of books with the assistance of therapy dogs.

Jan Willis, Dare County’s first kindergarten teacher and the teacher who gave most of our islanders their start in reading, is now a library volunteer and she is assisting her delightful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Contessa -- or “Tessa” in this initiative.

Tessa loves children, relishes attention, and sits quietly listening to stories, so she is the perfect audience.  Plus she has the best long ears for listening!  She enjoys stories that are read at any speed so the child doesn’t have to feel a need to keep up any particular pace. 

According to the Dare County Library, “... a study done by the University of California/Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, reading to dogs helped children increase their reading fluency by up to 30 percent.  Reading speeds were also increased by up to 30 words per minute.  After the study, 75 of the parents reported that their children were reading aloud more frequently and with more confidence.”

Of course, this is impressive but what I saw and heard recently at one of the therapy dog  sessions was much more uplifting than statistics.

A charming 7-year-old boy with a wide grin and a touch of the clown in his personality was reading with exuberance and emotion, thoroughly enjoying the stories he helped select and relishing Tessa’s excellent company.

The weekly program is adapted to the child’s needs and personality, and today he was sharing reading time with Ms. Jan as they made their way through two books from the “We Both Read” series.  He seemed to really like sharing.  He followed the stories and was quick to remind Ms. Jan when it was her turn.  As he read aloud and, in turn, listened to Ms. Jan, he absentmindedly stroked Tessa or gently twisted the silky fur on her ears. 

Jan Willis believes that a child’s reading experience is enhanced by the feeling of being close to someone who is reading to you, and the library provides squishy bean-bag chairs that can be pushed together.  This also provides a place where the young reader can lounge and get comfortable.  Much better than stiff chairs!  How many of us sit upright in a hard chair when we read?

A big bonus in Ms. Jan’s eyes is this youngster’s discovery of the library as an inviting and friendly place to be.  He observes people coming and going with books and hears people talking about books.  Staff and patrons alike welcome him and ask what he is reading.  Ms. Jan believes, “This nurtures that love of reading and library use that stays with someone forever.”

When I asked the young man if he likes reading more now than before he started the sessions with Tessa, he beamed and nearly shouted, “Yeah!”   His friend had come into the library earlier and he exclaimed to him, “I get to come and read to Tessa every week!”  He told me about a long list of words that he was given that morning and bragged, “I read the whole thing!” 

As we observed a patron with an armful of books, he proudly proclaimed, “My mom reads lots of them.”

Ms. Jan has seen “great improvement” in his reading skills and his interest in books and his mother echoed the sentiment. 

His mother couldn’t be more pleased with Tales to Tails.  “He is having break-through moments, building confidence and gaining enthusiasm and a willingness to read.”

Coming to the library provides “a releasing moment for him, giving him the ability to relax and be uninhibited.”  She arrived to pick him up after the session and wasn’t aware that it was a “We Both Read” day so I found it very encouraging that she told me that one thing that is helping with his success is his response to what she called a “Let’s do it together teamwork” setting.

The library manager, Helen Wilson, better known to all as Ms. Helen, is herself a former preschool teacher.  She believes Tales to Tails is “empowering.”  She is very pleased that the library is able to provide this experience because “We can see the light bulb going on!”

She notes the biggest gain for the young reader is relaxation --thanks in no small part to Tessa’s presence -- but she also credits Ms. Jan who “has the ability to guide him where he needs to be guided.  She is an outstanding teacher.” 

His mother believes that “his success is due to this program.  It is a priceless gift that Jan and Tessa have given him.” 

That is really good to hear but the library staff, Ms. Jan, and Tessa just love it that “He is always happy to come.” 

(Editor’s note:  The Dare County Libraries do not allow the release of a child’s name.  In this case, his mother signed a release for publication of his photo.)


Tessa is a certified therapy dog, registered with Pet Partners and she is the first active “tail” in Tales to Tails.  The Kill Devil Hills branch has recruited volunteer therapy dogs and now awaits young readers who can benefit from this experience.  Manteo is expected to begin participation next year.

The Tales to Tails reading sessions are by appointment only.  It is designed for young children in grades K through 5 who need a little individual help to improve their reading skills or their confidence in reading. 

Call Helen Hudson in Hatteras at 986-2385 or  Kathy at the Kill Devil Hills Branch, 441-4331, or discuss with your child’s teachers or the school’s media coordinator who can make a referral. 

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