Grace Bowles spreads a soft blanket on the floor at Chelsea’s McKune Memorial Library and sits beside her nine-year-old collie, Cassie. Bowles strokes the dog’s fluffy mane. Like Leo the Labrador and Boomer the Sheltie, Cassie is one of the library’s reading assistants.
Leo’s owner, Michelle McCarthy, introduced the monthly reading dog program to the Chelsea library four years ago. Hundreds of children have participated.
“Research shows children learn to read with more fluidity when they read out loud in a calm, nonjudgmental environment with no grading and no prompting,” says Karen Persello, McKune’s head of youth and teen services. Dogs don’t talk back, nor do they hover like parents.
My third-grader, Andy, has brought a favorite from home—his Diary of a Wimpy Kid paperback. When I ask whether I may remain in the designated reading room to observe, Persello politely ushers me out. “Eagerness on the part of parents can be interpreted as pressure,” she says.
When Andy emerges, he’s smiling. “I think the dog fell asleep when I was reading,” he says. That’s how calm the dog was. And he says the dog told him a secret (via Bowles) about how dogs help blind people get through airports.
All library dogs are first trained as therapy dogs; Cassie makes regular visits to nursing home residents. The dogs are calm and gentle, and they’re trained to do tricks on cue, including pointing with a paw to their favorite part of a book. Bowles mostly keeps quiet, though occasionally she’ll help a child who’s stuck on a word. “It is such a privilege for me to be part of this time in their lives,” she says.