He sits quietly and listens.
Six-year-old Joy Jennison snuggles up to him as she eagerly reads a book.
Only she isn’t reading to a person. She’s reading to a therapy dog named Joker who she regularly visits at the Elmira Public Library.
Since 2005, many children in the area have fond memories of the “Read to a Dog” program.
“It’s non-threatening to read to a dog,” says, Library Supervisor, Sheryl Tilley. “It’s such a fun program. You can’t be shy and nervous reading to a dog. It changes the focus from being worried or intimidated. Kids are not worried about the task at hand but on the dog. They lose that feeling of insecurity. I see them moving from being insecure to excited when they see Joker. It’s like they want to help him; but really, it’s Joker who’s helping them with their literacy skills.”
There is no other program like it in the rural townships in Waterloo Region.
“We are so proud here and so grateful. And we wouldn’t be able to do it without our volunteers,” Tilley said. Volunteer Holly Teahen began the program at the Elmira Library and over the years has brought four therapy dogs to the library including her beloved Joker. “Once we got the go ahead, the program just took off,” Teahen said. “This really gives kids the confidence they need to speak out loud. It’s incredible to see how the children have evolved. Some kids were afraid of dogs but they kept coming back for years. And we had one child who went up two reading levels in one year.”
Programs such as this are increasing in popularity across North America.
The executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals, Kathy Klotz, runs a nationwide program called R.E.A.D. – Reading Education Assistance Dogs in the U.S. “The child feels like they’re letting the dog understand the story,” Klotz told CNN. “They get to be the teacher, the storyteller, the one who knows more than the dog for a change…They just blossom when they get to be the one who knows more than the dog.”
Children ages four to eight are invited to participate in the program, where they will read to Joker for 15-minute sessions. And just recently, Joker celebrated his “sweet sixteen” complete with cake and gifts at the Elmira Library on April 30.
“Joker loves to dress up and he really loves bling. He has a following,” Teahen said. “He even has his own Facebook page.”
Joy and her brother Isaac were eager to help Joker blow out his candles. Their father, Tim Jennison, has known the dog for many years and continues to register his children into the program.
“Dogs don’t judge,” Jennison said. “They are the best listeners.”
Anyone interested in participating in the “Read to a Dog” program can visit the events page and register on-line at: rwlibrary.ca