Come, Sit, Stay & Listen
If you come to the Edmond Library on a Thursday night, you'll find a few surprising creatures along with the typical bookworm. Like adults and children, dogs enjoy having their noses planted in a good book, too.
Last summer, the Edmond Library started an innovative program called Children Reading to Dogs (CRTD), formerly named FIDO (Finding Individual Development Out Loud). The program is conducted by local volunteers through Therapy Dogs International, Inc. (TDI), an organization that provides guidelines to qualify handlers and their trained therapy dogs for visitation in a variety of facilities and settings.
The CRTD program, the first of its kind in Oklahoma, is designed to instill confidence in children who might be having difficulties learning to read or may be apprehensive about reading in front of classmates and teachers. It also helps kids who may be afraid of dogs to overcome their fears.
Rudolf Valenta, a retired mechanical engineer worked with librarian, Karen Lehr to set up the CRTD program. In the past, Valenta took his yellow Labrador retriever, Dollie, to nursing homes and hospitals for visits. "I like kids and I decided I'd like to try it to help these kids," he said.
Now, Dollie accompanies him to the Edmond Library weekly where she curls up next to a child reading a book, often about her favorite subject–dogs. Sometimes she'll even greet them with a paw shake. "She loves the kids and she just eats it up," said Valenta.
Lehr sets aside a variety of books for the children to read. She places them in a bin located near her desk. Many of the books are about dogs but kids are free to choose any book from the hundreds of books located on library shelves. The dog owners spread out comfy blankets on the floor and wait for the children to approach them with a book. After children finish reading, the dog owner gives him/her a green bookmark. On it is a photograph of two puppies sitting in a basket with the caption, "Be a Reading Buddy!"
"We've had kids that can hardly crawl all the way up to eleven-year-olds," said Valenta. "Some kids are standoffish but once they get down and read to the dogs, they usually warm up to it. And parents are very enthusiastic about the program."
Valenta likes that the dogs are non-threatening to the children. "The dog is a very non-judgmental listener that doesn't complain or correct. It's really a motivational thing to help kids expand their reading knowledge."
Thirteen dogs are currently part of the CRTD program. Everything from a huge German Shepherd to a three-pound Yorkshire terrier. A unique dog, a golden retriever and poodle mix is also a regular participant. "The goldadoodle, Tatum, is a good dog that does well with kids," explained Valenta.
Paris, a tiny, grey-haired, pony-tail sporting Yorkshire terrier and Shih Tzu mix, and her owner, Jan Hall, attended the CRTD meeting on February 8 for the very first time. They listened intently as one of the children, Dakota Buntyn, read a story. Dakota looked forward to coming ever since he and his mom found out about the program. "I like it and I'm coming back again," he said. Next time he plans to bring his two-year-old sister.
Another child, Landon Cargill, with his dad in tow, read a story to Paris, her purple metallic nametag jingling as she found a perfect spot to lie on the blanket next to him. When Landon was asked what he thought about the program, he exclaimed. "I think it's cool."
Any breed or mix can become a therapy dog as long as it passes an American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen course and passes a test given by a therapy dog certifying organization. According to TDI's website at www.tdi-dog.org, standard requirements include: accepting a friendly stranger, sitting politely for petting, appearance and grooming, walking on a loose leash, walking through a crowd, sit and down command, staying in place, coming when called, reaction to another dog, reactions to distractions, supervised separation and saying hello. In addition, they must act accordingly around medical equipment.
Valenta also started another reading program last year called the Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) program for children who are below class level readers at Piedmont Elementary. The program is similar to CRTD except it is more extensive and is done in a school setting.
"It is goal-oriented and documented," explained Valenta. Piedmont uses the Dibble testing program and the kids are tested before and after reading to the dogs. Many schools on the east and west coast have also implemented this program.
For Valenta, personal satisfaction is the most rewarding thing about the CRTD program. "Some kids are repeaters," he explained. "They come back every week. They come up and hug the dogs and really bond with them. The dogs have a certain kind of magic over the kids that you can't explain."
For more information about the CRTD program contact the Edmond Public Library at 341-9282.