Kids improve literacy by working with furry friends

A free-of-charge program offered at eight public libraries across Calgary is helping kids improve their reading skills.

Story PALS, which was introduced in Calgary five years ago, was designed to increase literacy of children between the ages of six to 12. The program’s draw comes from the fact that dogs are brought in to help kids read.

Numerous libraries across the city are partnered with the Pet Access League Society (PALS), which sends trained volunteers and their socialized dogs to local libraries. Kids then read aloud to the dogs under the supervision of PALS volunteers, which is said to foster a non-judgemental, confident environment for the kids to practice their reading.

Jennifer Kirkley said that her daughter was excited to take part in the program after being able to interact with the dogs.

“We were trying to get her to do activities with other people and the dogs became a good way to do that,” Kirkley said. “The fact that she’s excited about coming here and doing this is huge.”

Anne O’Sullivan, the children’s librarian at Fish Creek Library, said the program fits in with what Calgary Public Library is trying to offer.The Calgary Public Library has found that reading to dogs is therapeutic for children.

Photo illustration by Haleigh Pack

“This program provides a relaxed atmosphere for children who otherwise feel anxious about reading and gives them an opportunity to love reading,” O’Sullivan said. “I think that benefits us all. If our children love reading, that’s magical for Calgary.”

Judy Locke, a Fish Creek library assistant, said that the PALS dogs are a nice fit for the program.

“PALS has highly socialized and trained dogs that were used in other programs, such as visiting kids at hospitals and visiting nursing homes,” Locke said. “It’s very therapeutic and I believe that using dogs for this kind of program came out of that.”

A possible concern for the program arises out of pet allergies.

Shelley Lebert, a PALS volunteer, said that allergies are a concern but that solutions exist.

“My dog is a bichon poodle and she’s completely hypoallergenic,” Lebert said. “Any child and parent can come and be with this dog and not be affected by allergies.”

Lebert said that accommodations for the proper dog could be made for those with allergic reactions.

Another PALS volunteer, Lori Jarratt, said that she’s been able to see noticeable improvements in the children’s reading as the program progresses into the season.

“I’ve seen kids come a long way, and you can see it’s very therapeutic for them,” she said. “The dogs aren’t judging them, and so the kids seem to lose their barriers when they read with the dogs.”

dgoldenstein@cjournal.ca