For more information on Reading to Dogs and working with a therapy dog and its trainer, visit www.petsinaction.org. To register a child, call the Dawson County library's circulation desk at (706) 344-3690.
To a child beginning to read, words on a page can often be a maze of foreign symbols. Navigating them can be a daunting and nerve-wracking task.
Reading to Dogs, a special program offered monthly at the Dawson County Library, looks to ease children's anxiety by allowing participants to practice reading to therapy dogs.
Dawsonville resident Wendy Jordan, a therapy dog handler, believes trained dogs can be great listeners to children nervous about reading in front of peers and parents.
"The child can focus on the dog instead of the person sitting next to them," Jordan said. "In my opinion, it's more of a comfort to read to an animal because they're not going to judge you, who you are or how you read. Dogs don't care if you can't say a word perfectly."
Dawsonville resident Debbie Turner said she has been bringing her son Trent every month since last summer.
Unlike when he started the program, Trent looks forward to reading and has improved his grades.
"The dogs have become like family to him," Turner said.
While children read, the dogs rest at their feet or side. Midas, a golden retriever, drew pets and rubs from Megan Fitzgerald as she read to him.
"I think dogs have their own instincts," Jordan said. "My other dog couldn't be a therapy dog, but Winny can. She knows what to do and when."
"Winny the Pooch," as Jordan calls her, is 6 and certified through the Canine Good Citizen Program and Therapy Dogs Inc. Like Midas and the other volunteer dogs, Winny sits quietly beside her readers offering unspoken support.
"If the kids struggle with a word, they don't seem to get frustrated or flustered with it," Jordan said.
Robert Fauscett, a Dawsonville resident, brought daughter Maggie, a second-grader, for the first time.
"We were [at the library] last week checking out books and they told us about this. We signed up for it and [Maggie] was really excited," Fauscett said.
"One of her older cousins did it last year in Roswell, so she was super excited. She said the dog would listen better than her brother."
Maggie, who has three dogs of her own, read to Midas and later said she thought he was "nice" and "listened really well."
Anne Converse, a member of the therapy dog organization PETS In Action, facilitates the Dawson County Library program. She said she loves watching kids' reading skills grow.
"The dogs and kids have done really well," Converse said. "We have had a lot of good comments from parents saying, ‘You know, I cannot get my kid to read at home, but he cannot wait to come here.' That's been really great."
A program offered through PETS in Action, Reading to Dogs meets from 11 a.m. to noon every third Saturday of the month. Children must be at least in first grade.
The program's goal is to allow children the opportunity to practice their reading skills for 15 minutes and to build self-confidence in a comfortable, accepting environment.
"[The original program] did research that found that kids are more relaxed when they are reading to dogs. Their blood pressure drops and they don't get all intimidated," Converse said.
"Even if kids read to their parents, their parents tend to correct them a lot. Dogs are just nonjudgmental and happy to see them."