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Bow Wow for Books

By Staff | Dec 14, 2011

Lilli Harris shares a story with Bessie the bearded collie at Sanibel Public Library (Photo by Bill Schiller)

There’s a lot to check out at the Sanibel Public Library and it is more than just books. The library schedules a variety of programs, including one that could be said to be especially novel in the way of promoting children’s skills at reading aloud.

The R.E.A.D. program involves Reading Education Assistance Dogs and on most any Thursday afternoon, around 4:00, there among the children’s section of the library which includes such favorites as Heidi or Clifford (The Big Red Dog), one will find the real deal in dogs specially trained to assist children with reading.

During a recent tour of the library, The Island Reporter met Bessie, a five yearol-old bearded collie with a seeming affinity for licking a reporter’s chin, but particular penchant for participating in story time.

Bessie is owned by Ginny Fleming, a lady whose graceful demeanor and encouraging enthusiasm for helping children has been indisputably passed down to the pooch.

A grandmother of 13 grandchildren who originally lived in St. Louis, Missouri, before moving to Sanibel some years ago, Fleming says she and Bessie are also volunteers at The Children’s Hospital at Lee Memorial Health Park in Fort Myers.

Fleming says she couldn’t help but notice that Bessie had a special fondness for children and so much so, it prompted her to have Bessie trained and registered as a therapy dog to help. As they frequently make the rounds at the hospital, Fleming says that upon learning of the program at the Sanibel Library, she determined to register Bessie to assist there as well. Ironically, Fleming adds, “The requirements to become a reading education assistance dog is greater than what is required to work as a therapy dog.”

And to be sure, Bessie isn’t the only local dog who goes bow-wow for books. Youth Services Librarian Barbara Dunkle refers to a certain “Rocky” (the yellow Labrador) and “Simon” (the Golden Retriever) who also take a turn in helping out.

Dunkle says the program began eight years ago. At the time, she was already coordinating a children’s after school program and was approached by someone from Fort Myers who shared information about R.E.A.D.

She immediately recognized some benefits in having children read aloud to dogs. “The kindergarten through second grade children are at the perfect age to start this program because that’s when children are starting to read, and reading aloud is good way of practicing. When they read to the dog, the dog listens and there is no criticism, there is no correction, so they can read freely,” says Dunkle, who adds, for the kids who come, it is also a lot of fun.

When the program was first launched, Dunkle says the library had a New Foundland. “The kids looked at him and said, ‘Whoooaa,’ because it was like he was a horse,” laughs Dunkle.

The activity became so popular that a special sign-up space was set-up, and today, children line-up and wait, sometimes not too patiently, for their turn at reading to the dog that helps out on that day.

There have been other children’s programs sponsored by the library. This past summer, one initiative involved the achieving of reading goals where those who successfully read a certain number of books were awarded with special books of their own to start their own respective library at home. The Library’s Foundation ultimately helped to expand the scope of that initiative by matching the book donation with another, but in this case, the second book was donated to a child at Lee Memorial’s Children’s Hospital. As children improved their reading skills, they also had an opportunity to help out a sick child at the hospital.

The quality of the programs at Sanibel Public Library, as well as the overall usage rates by all who go there, have been auspiciously and nationally recognized. This past November, the national Library Journal, recognized Sanibel Public Library as a “Five Star” facility, distinguishing it among the best nationally, and the one and only library in the State of Florida to earn such a distinction.

Executive Director Margaret Mohundro says she was very happy to receive news of the award. “It’s an honor for us, but the award really belongs to the community and our foundation that have so generously assisted our library,” says Mohundro.

While the distinction also takes into account revenues and the numbers in terms of people that go to the library, there’s no disputing that when it comes to children activities, some of the credit has to be shared with the canines.

Of course, dogs like Bessie are not so interested in glory. What appears to matter more, beyond the opportunity to cuddle-up next to a kid and hear a story, is what comes after the reading practice. On this day, when the book was finished, Bessie hopped-up and headed for a side room at the library. Barbara Dunkle explained, “that’s where we keep doggy treats.”

Having completed her assignment for the day, Bessie enjoyed a snack.

To learn more about the R.E.A.D. program, contact Barbara Dunkle at Sanibel Public Library by phone at (239)472-2483.