One of my favorite events to attend at the library as a child was the therapy dog reading programs that allowed participants to read books to a trained therapy dog. Therapy dog reading programs helped foster my love for reading and writing, as well as my love for dogs, and I later became a certified therapy dog handler with my pet dog and participated in the reading programs as a dog handler. I recently received a message from a librarian asking how to make their therapy dog reading programs more inclusive and accessible for kids with vision loss and print disabilities, so today I will be sharing my tips from the perspective of someone who has been both a participant and a dog handler.
What is a therapy dog?
A therapy dog is a companion dog that is certified by an organization, such as Petsmart Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. Owners go through the training with their personal dogs, and once the training is complete, the owner/dog team has to pass a behavioral exam. If they pass, then they can go to pre-approved visits at places such as nursing homes, hospitals, women’s shelters, schools, respite care, libraries, and similar group settings. Therapy dogs are not considered service dogs or emotional support animals, and people cannot bring therapy dogs places without prior approval. However, some service dogs or emotional support animals may also be certified as therapy dogs.
Names for therapy dog reading programs
Therapy dog reading programs are often hosted at libraries, schools, community centers, and similar venues. Some common names for programs that I’ve encountered include:
- Paws To Read
- Tail Waggin’ Tutors
- Reading Education Assistance Dogs
- Therapy Animals Involved in Literacy Skills
- Paws for Reading
- Therapy dog-assisted reading program
- Library Dogs
- Read to Dogs
Therapy dog reading programs are typically free to attend but require participants to sign a waiver beforehand.
Choosing a book to read to dogs
Many therapy dog reading programs have a selection of books available in the program room that participants can read from, though many kids I worked with would often check out books from the main library and bring them to the therapy dog program room to read. Most participants will read one picture book or one chapter of a book per dog, rotating between different dogs so that they have a chance to meet each one.
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Using a magnifying glass or other assistive technology
Therapy dogs are trained to not acknowledge magnifying glasses or other assistive technology aids such as blindness canes or video magnifiers, though some dogs may occasionally sniff the tools when a person first sits down- I personally find it amusing to see a dog nose under a magnifying glass. Participants with low vision can use the assistive technology of their choice to read books, though the most common tool for reading programs I have encountered is a wearable magnifying glass that is worn on a lanyard so it isn’t easily lost.
Bring your own accessible books
Participants are welcome to bring their own accessible copies of books to therapy dog reading programs, including (but not limited to)
- Braille and large print copies of books checked out from the library or state accessibility library
- eReaders or tablets with copies of books
- Books displayed in a reading application
- Books that are assigned for school reading
At one memorable therapy dog reading program I attended in college, college students were encouraged to come read essays or other midterm/final writing assignments to a therapy dog so that they could proofread and de-stress from the writing process.
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Read original stories
When I was younger, I didn’t really understand that I had low vision and trouble reading standard print, and assumed that all of the books at the library were hard for everyone to read since they were blurry. Instead of reading books from the shelf, I started writing my own stories in large print and would bring them to read to the dogs, which inspired a love for writing- I would store typed copies of stories in a binder that I would carry with me around the room. After a while, I even started writing stories starring various dogs in the program, which was a fun creative outlet. This is a fantastic option for kids who love to write!
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Helping anxious/nervous participants
As a therapy dog handler, I often encountered participants who were nervous around dogs or who were nervous to read out loud. Some of my favorite strategies to use for anxious/nervous kids include:
- Participants don’t have to start reading the moment they sit next to the dog. Take a few minutes to pet the dog or listen to someone else read a story to the dog to ease into reading
- Therapy dogs receive training on how to be the best dogs for petting and companionship, and are much more gentle than the average dog someone might encounter on the street. Therapy dog programs are a great way to have kids practice gentle interactions with dogs
- Dogs don’t care how words are pronounced, they are just excited to have someone reading. It’s okay to take time to figure out how a word is pronounced
Other tips for participating in therapy dog reading programs with low vision
- Therapy dogs come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and breeds, though there are some therapy dog programs that are breed specific- for example, one program I visited in college was exclusively golden retrievers
- Participants are welcome to take breaks while reading to pet the dogs or ask questions about the dogs- a lot of people I interacted with as a handler would pet the dog between page turns
- Most therapy dog programs I have attended have involved dogs, owners, and handlers all sitting on the floor, though chairs and beanbags may be available as well