The dog pictured here is Sato, a Japanese Mastiff. If he were to stand on his hind legs with his front paws resting on my shoulders, he’d easily be taller than me and could knock me down. I have, actually, been nearly knocked down by his tail. Sato comes to the Malverne Public Library several times a year (usually monthly, but we skip a few months here and there) for our “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” program, aka reading to dogs. And he is the best: Gentle and just a little slobbery, patient and always willing to have his belly rubbed.
We found Sato through Therapy Dogs International. You can write or call this agency, located in New Jersey, and tell them you’d like to have a therapy dog program at your library. They will then send out a message to their members — all of whom have certified and trained therapy dogs — and ask for volunteers who live near and/or are willing to come to your library. Those people will then contact you. One of the best benefits of working with this group is that they are insured. And you should ask the trainer you pick for a copy of the insurance coverage to have on hand before any program starts.
I like to interview the dogs and handlers before having them come for a program. We talk about what work the dog has done before, how s/he is with children, how long the dog will be able to stay still, etc. It’s a good idea to get to know the trainer, too. One local woman kept coming — even for the initial interview — whenever she felt the dog would like to be read to, and not when we actually had appointments. The first and only time I tried to use her, she was so upset that our appointments were for 4:00 and she had come at 3:30 that she decided to, first, take the dog for a walk around the library (and by around, I mean inside the library and around the shelves) and then leave just before the kids came. Another very nice couple liked to dress their dog up for the program and, well, let’s just say, the dog and I were both pretty embarrassed. I insisted the dog’s reading glasses be removed, at least.
Sato, though, is great. Steve, his trainer is a dog trainer by profession, and he gives commands to Sato in either German or Japanese. Sato does a lot of work in nursing homes and he knows how to behave. Steve, too, knows how much Sato can do. One of our clerks here has even hired Steve as her dog trainer and, happily, Steve works as much with the human as with the dog. Steve lives in Queens, so I can’t promise he’d come to any library in Nassau, but he might be one of the people who answer your inquiry.
I typically schedule just three “read to the dog” slots within a half-hour, giving each child about 10 minutes with the dog. But Steve tells us if Sato is willing to do more and if there are kids hanging out, we ask them if they’d like to talk or read to Sato too.
We have the program in a semi-secluded area in the main part of the library (our YA section). You don’t want to have the dog and trainer and the child isolated from everyone else, but you do want to give them all some quiet space. Because reading to dog programs are often aimed at reluctant readers, who may find far less pressure in reading to a warm, fuzzy dog than in reading to parents or peers, you want to have some privacy for the child, but you want everyone to be safe too.
If you’d like more information, please feel free to contact me.
–Marie Drucker, Malverne Public Library