Art by Kari Dunn and her 10-year-old nephew, M. Gardner.
Magic means different things to each of us, yet I’ve observed that children tend to use the word liberally when encountering events that surprise and delight them. I recently talked with my 10-year-old nephew about his participation in the Sit … Stay … Read program at the Rochester Public Library. It has magically transformed his world. He used to have a palpable dislike for dogs. Not hatred for the species but, as his mom told me recently, an almost visceral reaction to their barking and non-human kinds of communication.
The library program is one that shares the mission of SitStayRead, a literacy organization in the United States that uses dogs as tools to improve reading skills. According to sitstayread.org, “Reading to a dog increases confidence and generates excitement about reading ... the dogs bring the sessions to life and provide a text-to-world connection — read about a dog; see a dog; touch a dog.”
I’ve been fascinated with these programs, but it wasn’t until my nephew became involved with reading to dogs that I began to understand the range of possibilities involved. That last part — the one about bringing the sessions to life and … seeing dogs, touching dogs — seems to have had the most resounding effects for my nephew and for his extended family.
While “interviewing” my nephew (and his mom, my youngest sister), the impression I got was that enrolling him in the Sit … Stay … Read program when he was five years old was not so much for the purpose of enhancing his reading skills as it was to help him feel more comfortable around canines. As his aunt and a dog owner, I can attest to his past hesitancy about engaging with dogs in any situation other than from a physical distance that involved walls, fences, streets and entire neighborhoods between him and the aforementioned animals. Although he has always had a great deal of curiosity about dogs in general, I’ve always understood that the abstract works best for him.
Recently, my nephew and his parents visited family in California for a week’s stay. I was most charmed by learning that a “reading to dogs” session was included. When I talked with my nephew about Sit … Stay … Read and how his perceptions about dogs have changed since becoming involved in the program, one of the first things he mentioned was reading to Gracie, his San Francisco aunts’ cattle dog. In his words, it happened like this:
“I was just watching the credits roll at the end of the James Taylor/Carole King concert on TV, and Gracie came in with my aunt. At the same time, her brother went to get a book and showed up with “Who Am I?” [Note: This is a wonderful children’s book about a panda who discovers things about himself and his heart.] They put Gracie’s backpack on her [a practice that helps to calm Gracie when visitors arrive], and we all sat down to read. I felt just as comfortable doing this as I always do in the library in Rochester.”
My sister-in-law and her brother let me know that although time with our nephew is always special, the moments they spent with him as he read to Gracie were especially poignant:
“We felt closer to him than ever as we watched him so lovingly share a book with Gracie … we had heard such good things about his involvement in this program but experiencing it firsthand truly brought home the benefits to him, his family, and his new canine friends.”
I have to believe that magic is alive in the Sit … Stay … Read program, serving to help kids not only gain confidence in their reading skills but also, as with my nephew, find new ways to perceive dogs as family members and certainly as creatures whose presence is both acceptable and welcome in their world. I am informed, too, that the dogs never bark when they’re being read to!
Kari Dunn is a freelance writer from Rochester.