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Building confidence to read aloud

County library’s youth program involves therapy dogs

CHRISTINE HARKINSON/The Sun: The canine Patron stands by as Burlington County resident CJ Colletti (right) reads, with Kathy Colletti (second from right), Samantha Colletti (third from right) and Dawn Donahue, the dog’s owner, on hand for a 15-minute session of “Read to a Dog.”

The Burlington County Library hosted a special guest earlier this month for its “Read to a Dog” program, Patron, a Bernese Mountain Dog and certified therapy dog.

According to the county library’s website, “Read to a Dog” is a program designed so beginning readers can practice with a therapy dog, to help them gain confidence and strengthen their reading skills. The program is held on select Tuesday and Thursday nights at the library, and registration is required for all 15-minute sessions.

“The purpose of ‘Read to a Dog’ is to have kids reduce their anxiety and the stress level while they’re learning to read, or strengthen their reading skills,” explained Lisa Dunfee, children’s services manager at the library. “Usually we’ll have families that come in as well – siblings – and they will sometimes split … But it’s a successful program.”

Patron’s owner, Dawn Donahue, is a member of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international registry of certified therapy dog teams that provide testing, certification, registration, support and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs in animal-assisted activities. 

The objective of the alliance is to form a network of caring individuals and their special dogs willing to share smiles and joy with people, young and old alike.

“He’s a gentle giant,” Dunfee said of Patron.

CHRISTINE HARKINSON/The Sun: Patron is a Bernese Mountain and certified therapy dog who participates in the library reading program on select Tuesday and Thursday nights.

“Read to a Dog” also features Samson and Bertha, certified therapy canines owned by Casey Crotchfelt, owner of Country Haven Kennels and Dog Park. According to countryhavennj.com, Samson is an old soul, easy to train and easy to live with. Bertha loves to play ball or Frisbee, and never wants to disappoint.

“Sometimes we’ll do a meet-and-greet, too, at different times throughout the year so the kids can meet the dogs, and see what they’re like,” Dunfee said, “  … We try to have an open night where they can meet the dogs and there’s no pressure to read.”

Dunfee emphasized how the dogs’ presence helps children read.

“It’s just to calm their anxiety, help them practice reading …” she noted. “It’s an exercise where you practice it to get better at it.” she said. 

Dunfee finds satisfaction in the children’s reaction to the dogs.

“It’s just that excitement level of them running to find a book with the delight on their face, and they come over and they sit down and they read to the dog,” she noted. 

“It’s such a connection that they have with the animal; it just makes my heart happy.”

Along with the connection made between the children and the dogs, Dunfee sees other values in the program.

“We’re trying to get kids to read, and I feel like literacy is very important in children,” she observed. “Anything that helps a child read and strengthen that muscle of learning how to read, I’m all for. We do that in a multitude of ways in the library here, and that’s just one of them.”

Other free library offerings include book clubs, a chess program, summer reading programs and a gaming club. For more information, visit https://www.bcls.lib.nj.us.

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