BILLINGS – Here’s a formula for fun: a frosty January day, a warm library, a bunch of kids and six friendly, tail-wagging dogs.
That’s what happened in Billings Public Library’s community room during the second annual puppy party. Dozens of adults and children showed up for a half-hour of storytelling, followed by a craft time and a meet-and-greet with six certified Reading Education Assistance Dogs and their owners.
The happy menagerie of large and small dogs, all certified through Intermountain Therapy Animals, included a miniature schnauzer, a sheltie, a golden retriever, a golden doodle, an Australian shepherd and a soft-coated Wheaten terrier.
The dogs, in their red kerchiefs, and the youngsters grinned at each other, and the dogs offered their fans soft fur to pat, paws to shake and gentle kisses. Some of the canines sat, others lay down and one, T-Rex, an Australian shepherd, rolled onto his back and looked up, eyes hopeful, inviting belly rubs.
The dogs, four returning and two new, are part of the READ to a Dog program, where children are invited to individually read aloud to one of the dogs for 15 minutes. The program takes place at the library from 10:30 to 11:30 the first and second Saturdays of the month.
The morning started with most of the children sitting in a semi-circle on the floor and the adults in chairs. The kids listened as children’s librarian Cindy Patterson and children’s assistants Allynne Ellis and Elizabeth Fellerer read books with dog themes.
Then, after the youngsters were instructed on how to approach the dogs, the six owners led them into the room and sat down in front so the children could line up and meet the pooches.
It was organized chaos as the children and their parents moved from one dog to the next, the youngsters often chatting with the dogs’ owners.
“T-Rex is the silliest dog ever,” 6-year-old Benjamin Roach said, sitting next to the dog.
“He’s on his back,” 7-year-old Rebecca Roach added.
Their mom, Sara Roach, said the family has a dog at home, a golden retriever.
“But the kids really love animals, and so I thought it would be fun for them to get to see some other dogs and get out of the house because it’s a cold day,” she said. “We are also going to check out books. We do that every time we come.”
The READ to a Dog program initially was funded through the Otto and Yvonne Mansfield Endowment at St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation, Patterson said.
“They loved animals, so they wanted it to go to some kind of program that had something to do with animals,” she said before the start of the program. “We were able to get in touch with Intermountain Therapy Animals, and they had just had several dogs go through the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, so it was perfect.”
READ to a Dog kicked off last January, starting out one Saturday a month. As more dogs were trained, it expanded to two days a month in September.
“The response has been phenomenal,” Patterson said. “New people come in every month, and then we also had kids that return and they have their favorite dog they like to read to.”
Each dog has a bag of books the children can choose to read, or they can bring their own book. The only caveat is that everyone has to be able to read.
“It doesn’t matter what level of reading they’re at, but the program is designed for readers reading to the dogs,” Patterson said.
Deede Baker, owner of Oliver, the miniature schnauzer, said that when she watches a child reading to the dog, she sees a kind of silent engagement.
“They’re reading the book, but they’re reaching over and touching him and he’s just relaxing,” Baker said. “And as he relaxes, they relax. It’s almost palpable. You can just feel the child go ‘this is OK.’ ”
For a child who struggles with reading or self-confidence, reading to a dog that isn’t critical can really help, she said. The child reads to a canine audience “that’s not going to laugh at them or make them feel uncomfortable.”
“And I think for children to be able to gain that confidence in themselves by sitting down and reading to a dog, they’re going to take that confidence into the classroom and I think that’s going to be very beneficial to them in the long-term.”
Julie Myers, who owns T-Rex, the Australian shepherd and a rescue dog, said meeting up with kids is his favorite thing.
“When we get the red scarf out, he absolutely goes crazy,” she said, sitting next to the dog.
In addition to visiting the library, she and T-Rex also visit various Head Start schools once a week through the READ to a Dog program. She tells about one young boy who could barely talk the first time she met him.
“He had a speech problem and he was scared of (T-Rex) and he was kind of scared of me being in the room,” Myers said. “And by the end of 15 minutes, he touched the dog a little.”
The next week, she opened the door and she and T-Rex walked into the building, and the little boy was there again.
“He was way down the hall and he saw us come in the door and he said, ‘there’s Wex, there’s Wex, I get to wead to Wex,’ ” Myers said. “And I started crying and I looked at the teacher and she said ‘Did you hear him?’ Because otherwise we couldn’t understand what he was saying.”
A year later, the little boy has grown in size and in his ability to speak and read.
“He’s come so far, and his confidence level is just 100 percent,” Myers said. “I could just see him bloom through the dogs.”