The Pickerington Public Library and a group of volunteers who use animals for therapy are partnering to improve youth literacy.
One Tuesday evening each month, therapy canines are permitted in the youth section of the Pickerington Public Library.
It is, after all, difficult for children -- and even many adults -- to resist a little friendly contact when The Connection's registered therapy dogs come to town.
"This one likes me," said Andrew Worth, 6, of Pickerington as he petted Reilly, an aging fox red Labrador owned by The Connection volunteers Mark and Audra McMurray.
Worth was just one of approximately 12 children who turned out July 9 for the library's "Dog Tales" program, in which children listen to stories and take turns reading to The Connection's therapy dogs.
From the moment the dogs entered the library, they elicited giggles among the children, many of whom were 10 or younger.
Most of the children immediately converged on the dogs, whose reactions and interactions with hospital patients and others are tested and observed by national registration organizations before they are certified as therapy dogs.
Others were more standoffish, but warmed up over the course of the 90-minute program.
The natural excitement, as well as the gradual building of each child's confidence, are cornerstones to the Dog Tales program.
Following brief introductions in which the children and dogs become acquainted and attendees receive pointers on the proper ways to approach and behave around dogs, the children are put in groups and take turns reading to the dogs.
While the dogs can't talk back, they can prove to be friendly, trusted companions who -- most of the time -- listen intently.
This, according to therapy dog proponents, not only is a tool for encouraging reading, but also helps children develop reading skills.
"It enhances their literacy skills in an environment free from criticism," said Cathy Burden, juvenile services manager at the Pickerington Public Library. "It's really neat to see.
"I've seen children struggling with a word and the dog will perk up and look at them," Burden said.
"It's just like a calming effect for a child struggling with reading or reading aloud. It's encouraging for them."
The library has hosted The Connection's Dog Tales program since last January and plans to continue it through next May.
The next Dog Tales event will take place Aug. 13 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the library, 201 Opportunity Way.
In addition to the dogs, The Connection's volunteers also are there to encourage young readers.
"That's an excellent job," Mark McMurray said to one reader. "There were words in there I'm not sure I know how to read."
Audra McMurray, a founding volunteer for The Connection, noted her organization has implemented its Dog Tales program in three libraries within the Fairfield County District Library system, in addition to its Pickerington program.
She also said the organization has used therapy dogs and other animals -- including butterflies -- for programs in the Lancaster School District and through hospice programs in area hospitals.
"The dog is a non-judgmental reading partner for kids," McMurray said. "They know they can read and the dog doesn't judge them.
"They can reach out and touch the dog. It helps them relax."
Such theories proved true July 9 on several occasions, including for 3-year-old Lily Decker.
Decker started the night wary of the three dogs brought to the library, but within minutes was resting her head on the back of Libby, a black lab owned by the McMurrays.
"I love you, puppy," Decker said before adding, "I want to read."
In another instance, a preschool boy who couldn't read began the night showing little interest in books, but roughly an hour later was sitting intently beside Libby with an open book.
"Even if they're in a small group, they get into the zone," Audra McMurray said. "Sometimes the kids who can't read start making up stories for the dogs, and that helps build their creativity and imaginations.
"It's just great to see," she said. "It decreases the kids' anxieties, and it increases their relaxation and is fun for them. It increases their self-esteem, which helps them build confidence to read."
Some parents who attended said they simply brought their children to the library that night to take part in youth activities, and were unaware therapy dogs were part of the itinerary.
They said they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw.
"The kids really love reading and we're just always looking for ways to encourage that," said Jill Rasmussen, whose 6-year-old son, Nick, was among those who read to the dogs. "This is very different," Rasmussen said, "so, I think it's wonderful."
While participants were unanimous in the assertion that it's more fun to read to dogs than adults, some were particularly excited about both reading and their visits with the dogs.
One such youth was Aly Decker, Lily Decker's 6-year-old sister, who lamented her household's lack of dogs because of her parent's allergies "to everything."
"I thought it was cool because I like the dogs," Aly Decker said. "They kiss and stuff.
"I like to read to dogs and wish I had one," she said.
"I want to come back here forever. This probably was the best dog time I've ever had in my life."
Additional information about The Connection, its therapy animals and volunteer opportunities is available on Facebook, at Facebook.com/TheConnectionBPANT.com.
The organization also is working to achieve nonprofit status and establish a website.