Eight-year-old John Tittle selects a book from a shelf at the Nanini Library in Tucson.
Excited over his serendipitous find, he skips over to 7-year-old Bree crouched at a table nearby, proudly showing her the colorful illustrations of a miner and his donkey.
“Can I read to you?” he asks her.
Bree wags her tail and holds out her paw to shake. John takes that as a yes.
Bree is a 7-year-old Goldendoodle – a Golden Retriever and Poodle mix. A therapy dog registered with Pet Partners of Southern Arizona, she and her owner, Kaye Caulkins, come to this library every Monday as part of the Read to a Dog Program.
The program, offered at more than a dozen local libraries in Pima County, looks to promote a creative environment for children as they learn to develop reading skills.
As John continues flipping through the pages of his book, Bree lays on a red blanket at the boy’s feet, her snout resting on her paws as her eyes remain in constant eye-contact with John’s.
“He loves to read,” Mia Tittle, John’s mom, says. “In school I think sometimes they make reading like a chore. A lot of kids learn to not like reading – ‘you have to go home and read this for 20 minutes a day,’” she said.
One of the focuses of the program is to put a motivational spin to reading, combating the stigma that reading has to be a chore.
Mia loves bringing John to the library and having him engage in their different programs like Read to a Dog for many reasons. Most importantly, she sees the library as a place of education.
“He’s homeschooled, so he’s learned to read just from coming here,” she says. “It’s important that (reading) is fun, that’s the main thing.”
Seeing John interact with Bree, the notion that he is having fun is undeniable.
“It kind of helps me,” John says about his time reading to Bree.
He’s read the same donkey and miner book several times before to Bree, but he doesn’t mind. He breaks into laughter rifling through the pages once more, looking at the illustrations, pointing them out to her. He says that he loves coming to read to dogs, and that he is always excited for the next time.
Mia wheels forward her empty blue-green suitcase, faded and discolored from months of use. This is for John’s newest plunder.
“We usually stay long enough to fill it with books,” Mia says. “He usually gets 20 books a week.”
Carrying an armful of books to the point where his face isn’t even visible behind the stack of them, he fills the suitcase.
“Because he’s homeschooled, the library is so important to him,” Mia says.
Bree is no stranger to the program by now; she was registered with the Pet Partners of Southern Arizona last September to pass as a therapy dog, and she has been a part of the Read to a Dog Program ever since.
“What I think is so valuable about (the Read to a Dog Program) is that the dog is so completely non-judgmental,” Caulkins says. “Kids who are struggling to read, or want to get to the next level, they are not intimidated because the dog doesn’t care if they make a mistake.”
Seeing that he is only the one reading to Bree today, John bolts to the nearest bookcase, retrieving another book.
“Since no one else has come to read to you today,” John says to Bree, “want me to read you another one?”
This time his reading is just a tad quicker, his voice a hair louder, and those pages turn with a noticeable air of enthusiasm.
“It’s so rewarding,” Caulkins says. “It’s very forward-thinking that the libraries here have a program like this.”
Caulkins’ travels nearly an hour and half round trip to make it to the library each week, but for her, the impact she has made on the children is all that matters.
“I have regulars that really look forward to seeing Bree,” she says. “One little boy was afraid of dogs, so he sat way over there to read the first time.” She gestures to a small kid’s table clear across the room. “The next time he sat closer, and the third time he came and sat right on the floor next to Bree and petted her.”
Bree has become part of the library, and reading to her is something many children look forward to each week.
Finishing his second book, John pats Bree on the top of her head, and begins packing up his books.
“Thanks for listening,” he says to Bree.
As John heads home, a young girl sprints across the room as she notices the dog curled up on her blanket.
“Well hello there, Juliana,” Caulkins says to the girl. “Are you hear to read to Bree again today?”
Daniel Burkart is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.