“This is the Nuzzle Buddies room,” said Biz Austin, community outreach coordinator of the Humane Society for Greater Savannah.
She opened the door to a small room outfitted with a comfortable chair and, in the corner, two containers full of children’s books.
Children come here to read to the shelter’s dogs and cats, she explained. One of those is 8-year-old Killian Mixon. “I like being with the dogs and being able to read. I read books about dogs and animal books,” she said.
Killian’s mom, Heather Mixon, said her daughter has been participating in Nuzzle Buddies about two years. “She takes her own books to read. The dogs encourage her to read... She doesn’t read to the cats because she has a cat at home. She loves all the dogs, all the puppies,” Mixon said. “Sometimes they want to play. Sometimes they snuggle up to her. They enjoy it and she enjoys it. It’s a really neat program.”
As part of the Nuzzle Buddies program, Austin said, “We choose a dog and cat that need socialization. Ones that are good with people. Also ones that are shy in the shelter. This helps make them be more adoptable. The child benefits a lot, too. He’s learning to read. The child gets socialized, too. And it’s relaxing.”
The Humane Society is considering expanding the program to college students who would study with the dogs and cats, Austin said. Also soldiers from Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield might be invited to read, too, she said. “And people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It’s really good to relax and read with a dog.”
Nuzzle Buddies is one of two Chatham County programs where children are reading to dogs.
Library Dog Days
The other is the Live Oak Public Libraries Dog Days where children come to the Islands and Garden City libraries to read to registered therapy dogs. Therapy dogs are calm, gentle dogs trained to provide comfort in schools, hospitals and nursing homes.)
The goal of Dog Days is different from Nuzzle Buddies.
“It’s more to encourage kids to read without any pressure," said Islands Library Manager Mary Rogers. "Our goal is to teach kids to enjoy reading even when they’re not perfect readers... Children who are hesitant readers can read out loud and not be judged” by a teacher.
“One child at Dog Days said ‘I can’t read!’” Rogers said. "And I said ‘Just tell the story. Look at the pictures and kind of tell what the story is because the dog doesn’t know. He can’t read.’”
Added Garden City Library Manager Kathy Wade, “Reading to a dog builds their confidence. A lot of kids don’t want to read in class but they can read to the dog.”
The Live Oak Public Libraries began its Dog Days program more than 10 years ago, Central Library Services Director Beatrice A. Saba wrote in an email.
An Islands librarian started the program in which a therapy dog and his handler/owner visited the library and “kids signed up to take turns to read one-on-one to the dog,” Saba wrote. “ I believe our first dog’s name was Howie... Howie was a Golden Retriever and was the official ‘mascot’ of the Dog Days program since he was our first official dog in the program. Howie passed on last year.”
In the Dog Days program now, “library staff pre-select books for kids to choose from when they come to the program, or kids can bring their favorite book,” Saba said. “They sit near the dog and real aloud while the dog listens… Dogs are great listeners and their presence creates an entertaining and educational environment that is relaxed comfortable and fun.”
“The key,” Saba wrote, “is to create an environment where kids can read aloud without being judged or reprimanded and where they have the freedom to read aloud. Dogs create that space and therefore the program creates a love of reading in kids.”
How it all works
The children’s room at the Islands Library was busy one recent afternoon. A boy was playing a computer game. Three children were playing with dinosaurs. Several more were picking out books.
Suddenly a couple of children cried out, “Doggies!”
Two large therapy dogs, Bella, a Labradoodle, and Brady, an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix, padded into the room led by handler and Bella’s owner Kate Burns. Burns sat down. And the dogs collapsed by her feet.
Immediately, several excited children sat down beside the dogs and began petting them.
Burns invited the children to read to the dogs. "Who’s going to get a book? Read a couple of pages?” she asked. Nobody answered. The dogs sat still and let themselves be patted.
Emily Roberts, one of the mothers watching the scene, joined the children and began reading aloud a book about the mischievous monkey, "Curious George."
When Roberts finished, Burns tried again. “You can read to the dogs. Or just show them the pictures,” she said to them.
This time she got a response. A small girl in Mickey Mouse shirt held up a book on counting and in a soft voice proceeded to read it aloud. Everyone clapped when she finished.
Next 7-year-old Sahasra Suman said, “I’m reading to the dogs.” Speaking confidently, she read a book about water.
Afterwards, Sahasra’s mother, Sushma Suman, was pleased with the reading. “She is reading for two years. She likes it around the dogs. She loves the dogs,” Suman said. “She’s been coming to see them since she was 2.”
First place in poetry contest
Nine-year old Ford Rogers loves reading to the Island Library dogs.
“I like reading to dogs because they really sit down and listen,” he said recently. He likes them so much that he wrote a poem about a therapy dog named “Guy.” His poem won first prize in a library poetry contest.
Reading to Guy
Reading is fun
And I’ll tell you why.
Reading is fun
When I’m reading to Guy.
I read Guy a story
About bears who could sail.
I knew that he liked it
When he wagged his short tail.
The library rocks
I can’t tell a lie.
The library rocks
When I’m reading to Guy.