Therapy dogs at your local library
By Sarah Naylor
“Happiness is a warm puppy.” This famous quote from Peanuts creator Charles Schulz is backed by scientific studies that prove that being in the presence of pets has a positive impact on mental and physical health. Not only do pets improve their owner’s mood, they may also lower a person’s blood pressure and cholesterol. Dogs in particular create opportunities for their owners and neighbors to engage with the world around them through socialization and outdoor exercise. In recent years, service and therapy dogs have become more visible in communities performing a variety of jobs or simply bringing smiles to people’s faces. In the greater Prince William area, therapy dogs visit local libraries as part of the Reading to Dogs program.
The goal of Reading to Dogs is simple: to provide a safe, relaxing environment where children can practice reading aloud.
On days this program is offered, elementary-age children may come to the library and sign up for a time when they can sit and read a book of their choice to a therapy dog. While these furry friends may look like ordinary pets, each one has completed a rigorous training regimen to ensure that they will be friendly, calm listeners in all situations.
Paula Street, who has been part of the library program for six years, wants the public to know that children really do benefit from it: “The child’s confidence, interest, and skills can improve by reading to our dogs. It’s a win-win for everyone.” Street has three therapy dogs: two golden retrievers named Birdie and Bogey, and a cavalier King Charles spaniel named Kaddie. “My favorite part of therapy work is seeing the joy and happiness these dogs bring the people they visit,” Street explains. “You often see shy children come out of their shell.” Kids can visit Birdie, Bogey, and Kaddie on first Saturdays at the Haymarket Gainesville Community Library. Kaddie, Street says, is partial to Dr. Seuss.
Through local organizations like Manassas Therapy Dogs and K-9 Caring Angels—both of which participate in Reading to Dogs—therapy dogs and their owners can give back to their communities. These organizations train, certify, and schedule therapy dog visits. Sonny Madsen, president and co-founder of K-9 Caring Angels, describes the scope of work her dogs and handlers perform: “We have dogs that attend nursing homes, assisted living and Alzheimer’s facilities. Some work with first responders whenever needed, and others work with the Human Trafficking Initiative.” Caring Angels service dogs provide comfort to victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, as well as special needs children and wounded warriors. “We have even had a therapy team who flew with the FBI,” Madsen says.
Dog owners can have their pets certified as therapy animals if the dog is calm, friendly, and receptive to training. When asked if any particular breeds were more or less suited to therapy work, Madsen replies with a vehement no. “It’s all about the personality and training,” she explains. “This is something that our team and board of directors feel very strongly about, so much so we wrote it into our bylaws. We will not discriminate against any breed.” She goes further to state that her program is open to anyone, anywhere, so long as the dogs involved give and receive affection freely. Most importantly, Madsen says, “exceptional obedience is a must.”
In order to participate in programs like Reading to Dogs, the canines need to master basic obedience skills. Many of the dogs in the library programs have trained with Sit Means Sit, a D.C. Metro area franchise that partners with Caring Angels. Their classes use attention-based training methods to teach dogs to focus on the task at hand. Owners may also take dogs to classes at local pet stores or the Prince William County Animal Shelter, which provides Canine Good Citizen courses. The goal of this training program is for dogs to earn the Canine Good Citizen Certification, described by the American Kennel Club as the “gold standard for dog behavior.” After receiving their certification, dogs are tested and observed during public trial therapy sessions, and must complete a series of successful visits to pass. When they do, they receive an official certification with a photo ID and service vest; owners can then connect with local organizations to schedule visits.
Obtaining a therapy certification is hard work, but those that have achieved it believe it is well worth it. Not only are dog handlers able to give back to their community, they also enjoy quality time with their pet and the people around them. One of Paula Street’s favorite things about therapy work is the opportunity to meet new people. “As a retired schoolteacher, I love working with children and helping them learn to love reading,” she adds. Sonny Madsen was inspired to start K-9 Caring Angels because she loves “the feeling that you get knowing it was your pup that touched someone’s heart.”
Programs like Reading to Dogs expose parents and children to the positive impact that animals can make. So often it’s the little things, like a friendly face and a wagging tail, that can make the biggest difference in someone’s day.
Reading to Dogs programs are offered at Prince William Public Libraries at these locations and times:
Bull Run Regional Library: Saturdays, 11:45 a.m.
Central Community Library: Tuesdays, 4:30 p.m.
Chinn Park Regional Library: Thursdays, 4:00 p.m., Saturdays, 2:00 p.m.
Dale City, Saturdays 11:00 a.m. -12:00 p.m.
Dumfries Neighborhood Library: select Saturdays, 11:00 a.m.
Haymarket Gainesville Community Library: First Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Montclair Community Library: select Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. -11:30 a.m.
Nokesville Neighborhood Library: Saturdays, 10:30 a.m.
Potomac Community Library: select Thursdays, 4:30 p.m.
To learn more about canine therapy and getting your dog certified, visit one of these websites.
About the author: Sarah Naylor is a freelance writer/editor and works for the Prince William Public Library System. A lifelong animal lover, she enjoys spending time with her cat and exploring Northern Virginia.