Paws to Read

Isabelle Wheeler, 3, of Lansdowne shares her book, "Dora the Puppy" with Holly at the Lansdowne Library during its monthly "Paws to Read" program Nov. 10. (Photo by Phil Grout / November 10, 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.

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"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.