Therapy dogs make nonjudgmental companions for kids learning to read in Mar Vista
By Rebecca Kuzins
Five book-loving canines are visiting the Mar Vista branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on Saturday to play an important role in BARK Reads, a program that aims to increase children’s reading abilities and self-confidence by letting them read aloud to therapy dogs.
The main idea of BARK Reads is to “encourage a love of reading,” says Melanie Pentecost, Mar Vista’s children’s librarian. “A lot of kids are shy, or they worry about being judged if they mispronounce a word or they don’t know exactly what’s going on. And dogs are the most nonjudgmental creatures imaginable. They look at you with love and adoration, no matter what you do.
“For a lot of kids — who see reading [aloud] as something intimidating or something sociable they have to do, like a public performance — reading with a dog … is a connective, communicative experience, rather than reading by yourself.”
Participating children are allotted 10 minutes to spend with one of the dogs. Kids can bring their favorite books, or they can choose from a selection of library books about dogs, including picture books for children who have not yet learned to read but can describe the illustrations. Babies and toddlers can listen as their parents read to the dogs.
BARK Reads is sponsored by BARK (Beach Animals Reading with Kids) Therapy Dogs, a nonprofit group that certifies dogs and their handlers to perform therapy work at libraries, schools and other facilities.
“The whole idea is for [children] to realize that reading is an enjoyable experience and books can take you places and teach you things that you can’t get anywhere else,” says BARK Director Josie Gavieres.
Since BARK’s founding in 2007, the Long Beach-based organization has trained and certified 170 teams of dogs and handlers, who visit 35 libraries each month and 80 to 100 schools on a weekly basis. Gavieres says the group plans to bring BARK Reads to the Venice – Abbot Kinney Memorial Library in the near future and has conducted a weekly reading program at John Muir Elementary School in Santa Monica for the past four years.
In addition to encouraging reading, BARK helps alleviate children’s fear of dogs.
“We call our dogs gateway dogs — the gateway to other animals — because our dogs are very calm and aren’t going to jump on you or climb on you,” explains Gavieres.
Pentecost was introduced to BARK Reads while she was attending library school and performing an internship at a branch of the County of Los Angeles Public Library.
“These are the best kind of dogs to introduce to children who are unsure or ambivalent about dogs,” Pentecost says. “When I was with the BARK program before, there were toddlers who would just tug on their hair, or put their hands right on their eyes, and the dogs did nothing except sit there and listen and wait.”
BARK’s certified therapy dogs must be at least 18 months old and are evaluated by a veteran dog behaviorist. The dogs must not jump or bark when they are introduced to the evaluator, must sit politely while being petted and must not react to children by lunging at or chasing after them. Dogs that pass the evaluation and their handlers are then certified to take part in therapy projects.
According to Gavieres, the most important qualification for therapy dogs is to “have the right temperament and just love attention” — including the attention of the children who will read to them at the Mar Vista Library this weekend.
BARK Reads takes place from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday at Mar Vista Branch Library, 12006 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista. Call (310) 390-3454 or visit lapl.org/branches/mar-vista/.