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Library Provides Children A Doggone Good Reason To Read

Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ

A Sycamore Public Library program called "Books and Barks" allows children to read books to canine companions one night a week.

Ten-year-old William Akst says he's been coming to the library for three years to participate in the program. 

In his latest session, Akst was reading a book about World War II to a black dog named Joey, who sported a red bandana. Akst says he’s seen a wide variety of dogs in his time during Books and Barks.

“Well, all the dogs have different shapes and sizes -- some of them the size of mini couches, and some of them so small, they can sit in your lap."

Participants sign up for 10-minute time slots to read to the “Canine Good Citizens.” They can bring in their own books and get a private room to read the story.

Akst bears an assortment of genres for his sessions. 

“I like to read chapter books like historical fiction, non-fiction -- those kinds of books," Akst says. "Sometimes [I like to bring] fiction that’s really funny, like short chapter books."

Meanwhile, Sycamore resident and parent Todd Sudmeier helps his daughter Deanna with her pronunciation during Books and Barks.

He interviewed his third-grade daughter about her participation in the program:

TODD: So, you enjoy reading? You enjoy-- DEANNA: Yeah, especially "Bad Kitty." TODD: And you enjoy reading the book? DEANNA: Yeah. TODD: You like picking out certain books that you think the dogs will like to hear? DEANNA: Yeah.

Joey the dog listens attentively as Deanna reads her story. Todd says the dogs create a safe zone for his daughter.

“The dog can’t be very critical of her reading either," Sudmeier said. "You know, it’s a non-judgmental animal."

Todd says he and his wife have struggled just getting Deanna to read, but the alternative setting with Books and Barks can be a powerful motivator. 

“I think it makes reading exciting for them," Sudmeier said. "I think it gives them a purpose to read where, if she was just reading to me or to my wife, I think it wouldn’t be very exciting for her."

Experts back the idea of canine-assisted reading programs. Dr. Jesse “Woody” Johnson, a  professor in the Northern Illinois University Department of Special and Early Education, called the emerging research on the programs encouraging and supportive in a statement:

"The research consistently shows that these programs are associated with significant increases in reading fluency for children who struggle with reading. Many of these children often avoid reading due to anxiety or a fear of failure or embarrassment. Canine-assisted reading programs can provide a reluctant reader with an enjoyable non-threatening activity in which reading is less aversive. Studies have shown increases in reading fluency, increased motivation to read. Parents report their children read more at home and appear to enjoy reading more."

Sycamore Public Library newcomer Kimberly Smith is actively involved in the program. She coordinates the schedule and arranges for different canines to come in, including therapy dogs.

Smith says animals can help foster a learning experience.

“Some kids aren’t as fond as dogs, so it’s nice for the parents to come into a safe environment and with a well-trained dog," she said, "so that they can see when their kids kind of like it too."

Smith also says there isn’t only one type of child that participates in the program. 

“It’s been just different kids, different ages, different anything," Smith said.

Book-hound William Akst says he gets to challenge himself with each trip to the library. 

"Some of these books are developing good reading abilities," Akst says, "and they’re leaving me wondering with questions and stuff.”

There’s no question that he will be back for more adventures with his canine companions.

The library holds Books and Barks between 6 and 7 p.m. on Wednesdays; registration is required to get a guaranteed spot.