By Mary K. Tilghman
2:01 PM EST, November 13, 2012
Gotta love a dog. They love unconditionally, they're loyal and always glad to see you. It turns out they can help a kid to read, too.
Holly, a 70-plus-pound yellow Labrador retriever, has served as a patient, and interested, audience for countless youngsters excited to read aloud.
But her Nov. 10 visit to the Lansdowne Library was the last for Holly and her human companion, Valerie Reidel, as volunteers with Pets on Wheels Maryland, who participate in the Paws To Read program at the library on Third Avenue.
Pets on Wheels Maryland has about 40 pet members who volunteer in libraries in Baltimore City, as well as Harford, Carroll and Baltimore Counties.
"It's getting bigger and bigger," said Vicki Rummel of Pets on Wheels.
The program, which is used around the country, began four years ago in one Enoch Pratt library branch.
Rummel noted that a three-year after-school program at one Baltimore County showed an increase in reading scores among the children who participated. Reading scores were tested before and after the program.
"They definitely did improve," she said.
A new volunteer will begin at Lansdowne next month while Holly moves on to Arbutus Library, which will start its own Paws To Read program in January.
Lansdowne Library has hosted Paws To Read, a program to help reluctant readers improve their skills, since September 2010.
Once a month, a volunteer Pet on Wheels and its human companion spend two hours in the children's area, listening as children read to them.
"Sometimes it's intimidating to read to a human being," said Cindy Swanson-Farmarco, a Lansdowne librarian. "A dog is a good listener."
She explained that dogs don't judge a young reader and don't interrupt to correct them. So children can relax and just read — and build confidence as they build their skills.
"They really seem to enjoy it," she said.
Readers sign up for 15 minutes of reading time with the dog. They can bring their own book, sit at the little table in the children's area or on the floor and read.
Sometimes, children who haven't registered ask if they can read to the dog, too, Swanson-Farmarco said.
If there's an opening, of course, they can. "We're flexible," she said.
At Saturday's session, only one child had registered to read to Holly.
But it wasn't long before there were five kids in a row, according to Reidel, 37, a Maiden Choice Lane resident. "That's pretty typical."
While children take their turns reading to Holly, the retriever waits quietly at their feet.
Many of the young readers hold up the book as they read, the way they've seen their teachers or librarians read, Reidel said.
"They show her all the pictures," she noted.
While Holly listens, Reidel sits nearby, her hand on Holly's leash at all times. But she knows she can count on her dog who, she says, "was always sweet, quiet and easy to train."
Holly is a volunteer with Pets on Wheels.
After passing a temperament test, she visited clients at the Mosaic Community Services for a few months.
But Reidel thought her dog was better suited to library work and they were asked to go to Lansdowne.
"It was a really good match for us and we've been doing it ever since," said Reidel, a writer and editor for an energy consulting company.
She also takes Holly to a Paws To Read Program at the Light Street Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Holly has quite a few chores during her library time.
She has to take the hugs of plenty of dog lovers, including the librarians.
And then there is the matter of putting the littlest library patrons, and their parents, at ease.
"We have a lot of small children deciding, 'Am I afraid of this dog or am I not afraid of this dog?" Reidel said.
Holly, who is 9, waits patiently while the youngsters decide whether to approach her.
In January, Holly will begin volunteering at the Arbutus Library, a bit closer to home.
Her first monthly appearances have been scheduled for Jan. 26 and Feb. 23, at 2 p.m., according to Kim Preis, a librarian there.
Butterball the cat will also be on hand at Arbutus.
If it goes well, future dates will then be scheduled, Preis said.
For information on Paws to Read or to register a young reader at Lansdowne Library, call 410-887-5602.
For information or registration at Arbutus Library, call 410-887-1451.