Paws to Read returns to Excelsior

Shorewood resident Paige Thompson, 3, reads to therapy dogs Getty, left, and Murray at the Excelsior Library March 21.
Shorewood resident Paige Thompson, 3, reads to therapy dogs Getty, left, and Murray at the Excelsior Library March 21.

Service dogs listen to stories from young readers at the library

Therapy animals are known to have great responsibilities: offering elderly people companionship, helping disabled individuals perform everyday tasks, and some even visit patients in the hospital.

What many people don’t know, however, is that therapy animals also serve young people right here in the South Lake community by offering a nonjudgmental listening ear.

North Star Therapy Animals, a volunteer organization aimed at providing therapy animal services to metro-area facilities, visited the Excelsior Library March 21 for the first time since 2010.

North Star, a group that originally partnered with Hennepin County Libraries in 2004 under the moniker Animal Ambassadors, has been visiting Hennepin County Libraries for the last 11 years helping young reluctant readers build the confidence to read out loud.

The Golden Valley Library was the first location to host a Paws to Read program, but the practice has since spread to 32 of the county’s 41 libraries.

Hennepin County Library Program and Events Manager Stephanie Steinwedel said the program has been “organic in origin,” with each individual librarian bringing the event to their libraries.

“There really was not a central push to organize this,” Steinwedel said. “It’s really just been the passion of the different librarians … it’s just been all sorts of great successes.”

Wendy Hitch, Minnetonka resident and North Star volunteer, volunteered at the Excelsior Library Paws to Read program 2008-2010. After the city’s new library was completed in 2014, Hitch pitched the idea once more and jumped on the chance to bring the program back to South Lake.

Hitch has been involved with North Star since 2004. She works specifically with dogs, but said almost any animal can be trained to be a service animal. Be it a cat, guinea pig, rat, potbelly pig, chicken or even a miniature horse, as long as the North Star volunteer is willing to go through the training with their pet, that animal can be a registered therapy animal.

North Star volunteers regularly visit hospitals and schools, offering services for something as serious as a patient undergoing chemotherapy to something as simple as a child who simply needs to be cheered up.

“Once you get to a visit it’s just so fascinating to watch your partner be the miracle,” Hitch said.

At the Excelsior Library March 21, Hitch and her dog Getty were joined by long-time volunteer Ardie Arko and her dogs Murray and Mia, as well as North Star volunteer Linda Frey and her dog Murphy.

The teams offered children 15-minute slots of  uninterrupted time to read to and cuddle with the dogs, which Hitch said can be much more powerful than what’s seen at face value.

“The beauty is you don’t correct the child when they’re reading,” Hitch said. “And the program is especially fun in the library because you’re promoting the library and that reading is fun. Sometimes it’s just a child and sometimes it’s a whole family, and it’s interactive in a way where you just get a love for reading.”

Steinwedel credits the program with helping reluctant readers overcome the fear and anxiety of reading out loud. Because all children learn to read at their own pace, the process can be much more stressful for certain children.

“In a classroom, getting asked to read out loud can be an anxiety-ridden feeling,” Steinwedel said. “This program offers a calming, nonjudgmental, patient experience for those children.”

Hitch said she likes seeing kids snuggle up to her dog and really get comfortable. She typically takes Getty to schools, so she knows Getty enjoys being around children and is sure participating in these library programs is just as much a treat for her as it is for the children.

“It’s really fun because you can see your dog making a difference and being the motivation that they need,” Hitch said. “You really need to be where your dog wants to be.”

Last May, the Golden Valley Library held a 10th-anniversary celebration of the start of the Paws to Read program. Steinwedel said it was impressive to see the impact the program had on students even 10 years after the first session.

“Kids who had read to dogs 10 years ago came back from high school to celebrate with us,” Steinwedel said. “Everyone is just delighted to have (the dogs).”

The Excelsior Library’s next Paws to Read program is 10-11:30 a.m. Saturday, May 2. The public is welcome to attend.

For more information on the Paws to Read program, visit hclib.org. For more information on North Star Therapy Animals or to consider being a volunteer, visit northstartherapyanimals.org

Contact Stephanie Helseth at [email protected]