Dogs make the perfect audience

Reading is literally going to the dogs at the Locust Public Library.

But that's a good thing: Children there are spending time with dogs and handlers from the Tail Waggin' Tutors program.

Here's how the program works: On the first Saturday of each month, Maggie and Brandy, a pair of "goldendoodle" therapy dogs, visit the Locust library. Children who have signed up for the program get about 15 minutes to spend one-on-one reading aloud to one of the dogs.

Elizabeth Bates, who works at the library, said some children bring their own book and some pick one up at the library, but all enjoy their time with the dogs.

It's a great way to practice reading skills with a nonthreatening audience, and the children love seeing the dogs.

The program began in Locust when dog handlers Dick and Pat Pohar approached library supervisor Karen Hartsell. The Pohars, who live in Union County, had become regular visitors to Locust, where they love to eat at The Fresh House.

They've been taking their certified therapy dogs to libraries and nursing homes for years and decided to offer the service to the library in Locust as well.

In talking with Pat Pohar, I learned how much time and training goes into preparing these dogs for the work they do.

Maggie and Brandy, each half golden retriever and half poodle, have been learning since they were puppies about interacting with people. Each dog has its own handler, who remains with the dog at all times: Maggie pairs up with Pat and Brandy with Dick Pohar.

For the library program, Pat Pohar said, it took a little while for the dogs to settle down and realize what they were there for. They are trained to lie on their piece of carpet for some friendly interaction with the children.

Once they've had a session with the therapy dogs, most children want to come back each month. They enjoy getting to know Maggie, with her "laid back, Southern" personality, and Brandy, who likes to do tricks.

Reading to the dogs was initiated for children with reading difficulties; the idea was to give them sympathetic, nonjudgmental listeners. Pat Pohar said children improve their reading as they come back month after month, but the program has grown into a "come one, come all" spirit.

Pohar sees children who have been afraid of dogs learn to be comfortable, and sometimes there are children who just need a friend.

Children can sign up to read to a dog by calling the Locust Library at 704-888-0103. The Pohars are available to speak to community organizations about therapy dogs; you can reach them at 704-385-8251.