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Ruff stuff

Dogs may be man’s best friends, but a weekly reading program proves they love story time with kids just as much.

Devon Green January 29th, 2014

Every Wednesday evening at The Village Library, Charley Nickell is making a difference in the lives of children. Her best qualities are her patience and her ability to make every child who visits her feel like he or she is the only person in the room.

Charley has been helping kids who struggle with their reading skills gain confidence by providing a willing, uncritical audience.

Charley is a 7-year-old AKC Certified therapy dog who, along with her person, Jerry Nickell, visits The Village Library to participate in Children Reading to Dogs, a weekly program at several Metropolitan Library System branches.

A HALO (Human Animal Link of Oklahoma Foundation) certified therapy dog, Charley visits several hospitals and assisted living centers in her busy week, bringing her calming presence to the sick and the elderly, but Nickell said that this stop is her favorite.

“It really seems that she feels like this is a vacation,” Nickell said. “She spends so much time around people who are suffering, and she feels that. It takes its toll.”

The hour she spends in a quiet and colorful corner of the library full of comfy cushions and floor mats is a quiet respite, and she gets to hear great stories in the bargain. The children are allowed to bring their own books or choose one from the library’s extensive collection. Nickell is on hand to give direction, calmly helping with sounding out words, but his help is never unsolicited.

This gentle guidance is all some kids need for their reading skills to show marked improvement. Nickell said one young lady who had been participating in the program for a relatively short time saw her reading improve by four grade levels.

Another female participant, this one from a bilingual family, went from struggling with basic English words to translating the books into Spanish for Charley and Nickell’s enjoyment.

“It’s amazing, really,” Nickell said.

“You give them that attention and show confidence in them, and they really just take off.”

The perfect audience
Anyone who has had the benefit of having a dog in the family knows that canines are the perfect audience. They will listen to “their” people with silent and uncritical interest, regardless of the topic.

This program capitalizes on that, allowing kids who otherwise would be too embarrassed to read aloud to classmates, or even their parents, gain confidence by having the chance to read to a furry friend who remains attentive and engaged, even if she has heard the story 100 times.

The afternoon of our visit, Quashyla Morris and her cousins, Natajha and Quincy, were busy taking turns reading Pigs in Love by Teddy Slater and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. By the end of their time together, Charley had heard each book thrice and was riveted every time.

She took turns sitting on Nickell’s lap and on the couch between Quincy and Natajha while they shared the spotlight of Charley’s rapt attention. You could tell all parties involved were having a blast. When reading time was over, Quashyla said she was going to come every week if her mom would bring her. She said she felt that the program was going to help her.

“Reading to Charley was really fun. I like her a lot,” she said.

The MLS program stems from a nationwide activity thought to have gotten its start with Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer-based organization that evaluates and provides training and certification for therapy dogs. In every library branch it has been offered, it has been received with great enthusiasm.

Not only is it adorable, but it motivates children in a way that summer reading programs do not. By encouraging the act of reading rather than finishing, challenged readers are more likely to participate for enjoyment, not out of pressure.

The Village Library recently expanded the chance to read to a canine friend more than once a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Call 755-0710 for more information.

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