Kids read better when they Paws at the library

At 7:30 p.m. at University City Regional Library, an announcement over the loudspeaker broadcasting the library's closing in 30 minutes sent a string of people to the checkout counter.

But two of the library's most loyal patrons didn't take their cool, wet noses out of their books. The children surrounding them didn't budge an inch, either.

It's been that way every Monday since the branch launched its Paws for Reading program three years ago. A steady stream of elementary-age kids line up each week to read to specially trained dogs such as 7-year-old sister shih tzus Gracie and Tessie.

"We did it to promote reading achievement," said retired librarian Nancy May, who was instrumental in bringing the program to University City Regional. "The fact is that dogs are nonjudgmental."

That's one reason programs like Paws for Reading have become such a popular tool nationwide for bolstering early literacy in communities.

At a time when many new readers are self-conscious of making mistakes while learning new words, a dog simply sits there with his or her big brown eyes and floppy ears and listens, a wagging tail building confidence in a young reader with each new tale.

Experts say children who read regularly to dogs end up becoming better readers in the long run. According to a study by the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, when children read to dogs 15 to 20 minutes a week for 10 weeks, their reading fluency levels rose by 12 percent in public school children and 30 percent in home-schooled children.

Angel Lee said her daughter Scarlett, 6, a first-grader at Mallard Creek Elementary, has become a much better reader since joining the program a year ago.

"Before, she just loved to watch TV and play video games," said Lee. "She's reading everything now. Cereal boxes. She always has at least one book in her backpack."

On a drenching downpour of a night, Scarlett and her mother shook off their raincoats and tiptoed up to the dogs in a far-off corner of the library.

Scarlett sat down and began a lengthy conversation with Tessie and Gracie, catching up like old friends.

She showed them her new backpack, which happens to have a kitten on it. Each dog stared at her, then at the backpack, as if they understood every word.

Then she begins reading a book about a goose. The dogs' eyes stick to the illustrations as if they were drawings of dog bones.

"I think they are thinking about the book," said Scarlett, watching each dog's deep, pondering gaze.

When she was finished, handler Carlene Gogolin lifted a paw to deliver Scarlett a high-five.

Gogolin, who has a trio of shih tzus - Tessie, Gracie and Toby - said the dogs seem to enjoy the activity as much as the kids do.

"They like it so much, they pretty much anticipate it all day," said Gogolin, when it's their night to come listen.

"I don't know how they know, but they wait by the door. Sometimes they'll grab their leashes."

Gogolin said she can't pick up a book at home anymore without her dogs rushing over to her to listen.

"We've had some good dogs," said May. "We started with a standard poodle." Since then, a collie, Irish setter and now the shih tzus have passed the baton.

"There's always one who gets left back," said Gogolin, who brings just two dogs at a time each night. "So Toby was by the door tonight, looking sad as anything. We'll go home tonight and probably read him a book."