Go, dog. Go!

Pepper the therapy dog helps kids learn to read at the Sandpoint Library

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

Pepper, a boxer with an adorable underbite, has perhaps the best job in the world: she’s a trained therapy and reading dog. On the last Wednesday of the month, Pepper hangs out in Karen’s Kids Room at the Sandpoint branch of the East Bonner County Library, where children come to cuddle and to read to her.

The Read to a Dog program began years ago with adoptable pups from the Panhandle Animal Shelter — now called the Better Together Animal Alliance — as a way to help kids learn to read and find homes for the dogs. Brenden Bobby, the library’s exploration coordinator and a Reader columnist, even found his pup Tilly through the program. Unfortunately, the shelter’s dogs weren’t the best listeners, and eventually the program faded.

The new version of Read to a Dog debuted in December 2022 under the leadership of Youth Services Librarian Suzanne Davis and with the help of Ellen Wassif, Pepper’s owner and the associate administrator for Farmin-Stidwell Elementary. Pepper is the only service dog in the program at this time, but the library is on the lookout for other certified dogs — or rabbits — to join in the storytime.

Pepper is ready to serve. Courtesy photo.

“Learning to read is hard work. In order to become a skilled reader, children have to learn phonics — sounding out words — and recognize sight words, learn new vocabulary, use their background information, practice comprehension, practice fluency and spend time reading,” said Davis. 

Reading is no easy feat, but kids improve immensely when they consistently read out loud. Davis said reading to Pepper is easy for kids because she’s comforting and non-judgmental.

“A struggling reader often has an adult constantly interrupting his reading with a correction in pronunciation or [by] supplying a word he is struggling with. This is tough on confidence,” said Davis. 

This can make kids shy and hinder their learning, as even mispronouncing a word helps improve fluency, according to Davis.

Dogs don’t have that problem; Pepper will listen quietly and attentively no matter what. Pepper’s support provides positive reinforcement that motivates kids to continue learning and helps them to actually enjoy reading. Children can get similar reinforcement by reading to the important people in their lives or by being read to.

“Feeling listened to is an empowering experience, no matter the context. For children, [Read to a Dog] gives them a safe and secure way to feel listened to while they are still building their vocabulary,” said Bobby.

Dogs additionally reduce stress, helping kids relax and focus on reading. The program aims to provide a safe, comforting and fun space for young readers to practice their skills. Children can visit Pepper Wednesday, Sept. 27 from 3:30-4:30 p.m. and sign up for a 10-minute reading session.

“It is even OK to just come in for a little cuddle time, if you are having a rough day,” added Davis.

Read to a Dog is free and takes place on the last Wednesday of each month. Upcoming dates are Sept. 27, Oct. 25 and Nov. 29. For more information, visit ebonnerlibrary.org.

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