Books open and pages flip as young students prepare to practice reading skills at Winter Park Library. The group goes silent, and the first words are read as furry, floppy ears perk to attention.
This scene plays out twice monthly as Angel Paws to Read provides a safe space for children, ages five and up, to improve reading and social skills with the help of local therapy dogs.
“The program started about 10 years ago with a St. Bernard named Huey,” Winter Park children’s librarian Shanna Kuster told the32789. “His owner would bring him in once a month and kids could come right up and visit and read with him. At the time, we called it ‘Reading is Doggone Fun.’”
The practice of reading to a therapy dog may seem unusual but is far from unique. Libraries across the country provide a relaxed, dog-friendly environment where children can improve their reading, build self-esteem, and become accustomed to public speaking.
“They don’t feel like they’re reading to a group. It’s all about the dogs,” said Kuster.
As demand grew, the library partnered with Be An Angel Therapy Dogs Ministry and scheduled sessions – dubbed Angel Paws to Read – where several dogs were brought in to sit with reading groups. According to Kuster, the dynamic shifted at the end of 2022 when the ministry ended its practice.
“The founders retired and there was no one to take over the organization,” she said. “We had three dogs coming in at that time and their owners wanted to keep it going, so I am now the program coordinator for our library.”
Canine/owner teams are certified with Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which helps outreach to additional participants. “I can contact the alliance to see if they have any certified licensed dogs in the area that might be able to come in if we needed,” added Kuster.
Reading groups meet for two, 30-minute sessions beginning at 3:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. Participants are given a card that is punched at the completion of each reading session, and every three punches earns a free book.
As enticing as free books and an audience of participating pups may be for the kids, family members like Winter Park resident Debbie Swank know the real reward is the accomplishment. Swank’s granddaughter, Jaycie, began attending Angel Paws to Read at age five when a fellow student told her about the program.
“She was so excited to come home and tell me about reading to a dog,” said Swank. “We signed up and that’s how it all began.”
Now eight years old, Jaycie is still going to the bi-monthly sessions and experiencing the benefits. “Her reading is above her grade level, and she loves earning her books.”
Angel Paws to Read registration is available on the Winter Park Library calendar page. A limited number of walk-ins are also accommodated for each session.