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Dogs Lend an Ear to Encourage Shy Readers

Bow Wows and Books uses canines to bolster literacy — and puppy love



Monica Payson with her daughter, Haley, and their ambassador dog, Silas.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

The dogs participating in Bow Wows and Books could more accurately be called highly trained canine ambassadors. 

Each week during the school year, the pups visit either Seattle’s Green Lake or Northgate public libraries. The program is designed to give anxious readers a non-threatening environment for practicing their skills out loud. But the dogs are also a boon to kids who are nervous about pooches, providing them a safe, controlled setting to get close to and pet them.

“It’s really about kindness and compassion and accepting everyone, no matter where you’re from,” said Judi Anderson-Wright, board president for Project Canine, a nonprofit organization that trains the dog and handler teams who volunteer for Bow Wows and Books. 

The children who come to the sessions might ordinarily get tongue-tied reading in front of their peers and teachers. But in a room of kids and dogs, they can relax. 

“Dogs can’t sound out the words either,” Anderson-Wright says. “They never say, ‘Oh no, you said that wrong.’”

Some of the kids are actually voracious readers who just enjoy a little canine company. One child, Anderson-Wright says, kept coming back to the events, ultimately reading an entire Harry Potter book to the dogs. 

Adults with a fondness for dogs also will participate. So will homeless families and newly immigrated families, who might not be used to a culture so welcoming to dogs. 

Anderson-Wright recalls a mother and son from India who were fearful of dogs and came to Bow Wows and Books looking for a positive interaction. Project Canine was ready; the dogs involved in this work undergo careful training, testing and certification and have proven themselves to be patient and calm. Through the help of a gentle former racing greyhound, the duo built up the confidence to pet the dog. 

Project Canine also runs a program called Operation Opie that’s focused on preventing children from being bit by dogs, through hands-on lessons that teach them how to safely engage with pups.

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