By Dedra Cordle
The Southwest Public Libraries staff members say they are always on the lookout for innovative ways to engage its youngest readers.
“We set out to create positive experiences so they can develop that life-long passion for reading and learning,” said Meredith Wickham, director of the SWPL.
Throughout the year, the youth services department at the Grove City Library and the Westland Area Library host a variety of programs that assist young children with their reading development skills. While most of the engagements for those at the elementary level involve listening to a librarian read a book or singing-along with a librarian as they read a book, some try to venture into the tricker waters with programs that encourage children to read out loud. Some of the staff members often find those programs to be less successful than others.
The issue that arises with read out loud programs, said Wickham, is that children who are learning how to read or children who may not yet have a high level of confidence in their skills will clam up and refuse to participate no matter how much they are reassured that they are not being judged.
“It can be a very uncomfortable experience for young readers or struggling readers to read out loud amongst their peer groups, or even with an adult,” said Wickham. “They see that other people their age might be verbalizing the words on the page more proficiently than they are and then they shut down because they are afraid to hear that correction or a perceived judgment of their skills.”
Knowing how important reading fluency is to the development of a child, the youth services department at both libraries put their heads together to brainstorm ideas that would put shy readers or struggling readers more at ease with the prospect of reading out loud.
The solution – animals.
Last year, the Grove City and Westland Area Library welcomed an assortment of furry creatures into their buildings as a way to allow developing readers to gain confidence through the non-judgement of two-legged and four-legged creatures. At the Westland Area Library, children practiced their reading fluency with young chickens and a rabbit. At the Grove City Library, children practiced their reading fluency with a canine whose sole mission in life is to give comfort to all who need it.
In March, Rosie, a then 8-year-old Golden Retriever who was trained through the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry and who is based at the Atonement Lutheran Church in Columbus, made her first appearance at the local library. Immediately, a star was born, as was a concerted effort to ensure that she made repeat visitations throughout the year.
When Rosie began her pro-bono career as a registered comfort dog in 2016, the team that surrounds her did not necessarily have literacy programs at libraries in mind.
“It kind of happened by chance,” said Mary Ludlum, a secondary caregiver to Rosie and the “Top Dog” team member at the church who administers appearances and assists on most visits.
She explained that a local school reached out to the ministry with a request to schedule the canine for a visit so she could offer comfort to children as they tried to read out loud – some making the attempt the very first time publicly.
Ludlum said she will never forget the experience of watching shy kids and those who were struggling with verbalization open up under the adoring gaze of the sweet-faced and sweet-natured Golden Retriever.
“It was just a blessing to be a part of, and it continues to be to this day,” said Ludlum.
Shortly thereafter, word started to spread throughout town about Rosie the Comfort Dog and her ability to put children at ease as they develop their reading skills. She soon became a fixture at preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and even colleges and universities.
Hearing of the positive psychological impact that reading to canines, especially those registered as comfort animals, can provide to young readers and learners, youth services librarian Lore Lehr and past-president of the Friends of the SWPL board, Suzanne Norris, contacted the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs to request that Rosie make her first appearance at the Grove City Library in the spring of 2022.
The reception from the children and the feedback from the parents was so positive they asked if she could “come around all the time.”
“While we would love to have her here on a regular basis, we don’t want to stretch her too thin,” said Wickham. “I know she has a very busy schedule.”
Rosie did make another appearance later that year, and she will make her third appearance at the Grove City Library on Feb. 25. As of press time, the reservations to schedule a time to read with Rosie have been filled, but interested parties can call the youth services department to inquire about cancelations. Officials with the library said they are trying to schedule future visits with Rosie in the fall or winter, and possibly bring a similar program to the Westland Area Library as well.
Wickham and Ludlum, who is a retired librarian and the former director at the Grandview Heights Public Library, both said they believe reading with animal programs are, and will continue to be, an invaluable tool to assist children toward a life-long path of reading and learning.
“I have seen children just blossom under the care of Rosie,” said Ludlum. “They come in to the reading room with Rosie, some who are very hesitant or uncomfortable by the thought of reading out loud, but she just watches, waits for pets, and allows them to read at their own pace without judgement.”
She said it is immensely rewarding to see children become comfortable with reading out loud, with gaining confidence in their developing skills, and expressing joy at reading with Rosie.
“She is such a gentle girl who just wants to give comfort, receive affection, and be read to.”
Although it is rumored she prefers books with dogs, she will accept tales of cats and other animals too.
The Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Ministries has over 130 dogs in more than 26 states who are registered as Kare-9 Military Animals or K-9 Comfort Dogs. Rosie has certification in both and often greets veterans as they prepare for Honor Flights. In addition to providing comfort to early learners, Rosie has also provided comfort at nursing facilities, funerals, and communities that have experienced mass casualty events or other traumatic situations.
To learn more about Rosie and other K-9 Comfort Dogs in the state, visit the Lutheran Church Charities website at www.lutheranchurchcharities.org/k-9-comfort-dogs-about.html or visit Rosie’s Facebook Page at Rosie Comfort Dog.