HOHENFELS, Germany -- Young readers at the Hohenfels Military Community are getting a unique opportunity to practice their skills through a new program at the post library set to restart in late April.
The 'Paws to Read' program pairs readers with dogs who serve as non-judgmental audiences while the child practices reading aloud.
"Studies have shown that reading to a dog benefits a child's reading ability," said Nan Barker, library director. "Like any skill, the more you do it, the better you are apt to become, and who doesn't want to read to a dog that's just staring at you adoringly?"
Though Barker had wanted to institute the program for some time, it wasn't as easy as just plopping down with a pooch.
"In the States they have certified reader dogs," said Barker. "In Kaiserslautern, they have therapy dogs that they use in the hospital. We had neither."
Not to be deterred, Barker consulted with the Hohenfels Veterinary Clinic on what would make a viable reading dog.
"She said really, they'd only need a good citizenship test at the veterinary clinic; make sure they're well-behaved, child-friendly and not easily startled. And they'd need to have their shots up to date," Barker said.
With help from library staff and other community members, Barker found two German nationals, Gabi Vogl and Guenther Mitschke, who were willing to donate their time and excited to take part in the program with their dogs, Dusty and Lucky.
"They both had golden retrievers," Barker said. "Golden retrievers are just the best dogs; very, very gentle, sweet, loving dogs that just want to hug on you all the time."
With two dogs, Barker was able to split the sessions over Tuesdays and Wednesdays for six weeks at the beginning of 2014. She approached Caryn Currie, Hohenfels Elementary School principal, and offered one of the days exclusively for HES students who might be struggling with reading.
"The six children that we recommended loved it! They want to do it again," said Currie. "I had a parent tell me it was fantastic for their child. We had some great comments."
Wednesdays were opened for any child in the community from 5 -- 12 years old who wanted to build their confidence by reading to a dog. Spots filled quickly.
First grader Destiny Colon visited Dusty four times during the initial six-week run of the program. Her favorite book to read to the dog was, "Go, dog, go."
"Kids really enjoyed reading to the dogs about dogs," Barker laughed.
"Destiny isn't very competent in her reading, and the dog showed no judgment to her reading skills, so we thought it an excellent way for her to help boost her confidence," said Bobbie Colon, Destiny's mother.
Tim Colon, Destiny's father, said that getting to interact with the dog actually motivated his daughter to read.
"And the fact that the dog is so well-behaved and just sits and listens or comes and puts his head on the child's lap, the kids really love it," he added.
Bobbie said that Destiny looked forward to each trip and seemed excited about reading.
"It definitely increased her desire to want to read more," she said.
Barker said reading out loud improves fluency, pronunciation and vocabulary, but many children don't want to read out loud at school for fear of performing poorly.
"They relax more with the dog," she said. "If they trip over a word, the dog doesn't care; he loves them no matter what."
Each session last 20 minutes, and the library is offering six sessions to the community on Wednesdays. Sign up began April 1. They are hoping to add a third dog and a third day to the schedule but that has yet to be confirmed.
While parents, teachers and children all seem delighted with the program, they are not the only ones.
"The dogs loved it," said Barker. "Dusty especially would get so excited to see everybody that every part of him was wiggling simultaneously."
For more information or to sign up, contact the Hohenfels library at 466-1740.