Imagine reading “Go, Dog, Go!” to a puppy, “The Cat in the Hat” to a kitty, “Pat the Bunny” to a rabbit, or even “Llama Llama Red Pajama” to a real llama.
A program called “A Tale for Two,” which brings together young readers and animals – both homeless pets and resident farm animals – is being offered this month at the SPCA Serving Erie County.
“The positive attention that the child provides by reading to the animal is very soothing to them, very calming,” said Pamela Hylinger, director of humane education at the Tonawanda shelter. “It’s nice for the animals to have that one-on-one attention. For the child, it’s a non-judgmental, safe situation where they can read.”
The 45-minute sessions, which are available to anyone age 5 to 15 and cost $10, will start, when the parent calls to register, with an evaluation of the child’s interests, said Hylinger. “We’ll do a brief discussion about the child’s reading and likes and dislikes,” she says, then make an appointment for the reading session.
She pictures the ideal child to participate in “A Tale for Two” as “the kid who loves animals, and either really loves to read, or doesn’t like to read at all. The animal can be the vehicle for the child to practice their literacy skills.”
Several other programs exist locally where children can read to animals, but the others generally involve one certified therapy dog. In this situation, the child can read to a variety of adoptable animals — a cat in a small room, a dog in a pen in the auditorium, or even a rabbit, ferret, bird, turtle or lizard in its habitat. Even a snake, if one is available at the SPCA, might enjoy hearing a story.
In the SPCA’s educational farm, a child might be able to read to Clarissa, the gentle llama, or Xylord the miniature horse. “The farm animals that are resident or up for adoption still need the enrichment,” said Hylinger. “So one-on-one time with a child and an SPCA humane educator is valuable for those animals, too.”
Each child is encouraged to bring the book to read, although the SPCA may be able to provide a book if a child forgets.
On the day of the appointment, the child and parent, who is encouraged to stay during the session, will meet with a humane educator, with the emphasis on the word “educator.”
“Everyone on my team has education backgrounds of some sort, bachelor’s and masters,” said Hylinger. “I have my masters in literacy instruction, and we have a very nice variety of educational backgrounds.”
The encounter will start with the child’s introduction to the animal, not only the species or breed, but this specific animal.
“My team could answer any questions the kid has about the animal, then we would begin the reading,” said Hylinger. “If the child reads for 20 minutes and then says they are tired, we could just chat about the animal the rest of the time.”
Programs like “A Tale for Two” are taking place in a few other shelters across the country. At the Bitter Root Humane Association in Hamilton, Mont., students have been reading to animals for more than a year.
“We’ve seen that the sound of voices is soothing for the dogs and cats,” Ria Overholt of the Keystone to Discovery After School Program told the Missoulian newspaper. “It is relaxing to the dogs to hear those calm and steady voices.”
If the “A Tale for Two” program is successful, it may be offered all next summer, Hylinger said. “A lot of times, parents want to help their child’s literacy skills grow, but they may not know how to, so this may be a fun program that the kids get involved in,” said Hylinger. “The kids may become a little bit more comfortable reading, so when they go back to school and have to read in front of their peers, maybe they are not so scared and not so shy.
“The humane educators that are there will not be correcting the children, and the animals aren’t going to be correcting them either.”
To schedule a session of “A Tale for Two” at the SPCA, 205 Ensminger Road, call the Humane Education Department at 629-3538. A single session is $10, three are $25.