WESTFIELD, NJ — On Saturday, 6-year-old Jonah Block, a first grader at Franklin Elementary School, had a chance to sit in a room in the Children’s Department of the Westfield Memorial Library and read book to his friend Broadie, a therapy dog who happens to live in his neighborhood.
“I loved that he’s always paying attention and that he looks at the book. I read him ‘Biscuit Takes a Walk,’” said Jonah. Jonah’s mom, Tamara, knows Broadie and his owner, Tom Maher, from their neighborhood.
“It’s a nice way to practice reading, and we’re glad to have an excuse to hang out with a dog,” she said.
PAWS to Read is a program at the library started by Justin Messerman, a senior at Westfield High School.
“Our goal is to allow kids who are emerging readers to practice reading in a nonjudgmental environment,” said Messerman.
During his freshman year, Messerman thought he might like to have his own dog, a Clumber Spaniel named Maggie, certified to become a therapy dog.
“When she started growling at the people at the training, we realized she probably wasn’t going to be able to do it,” he recalled jokingly.
Instead, Messerman decided to start a program where kids who were emerging readers could read to other therapy dogs, and began by researching programs at other area libraries. He then reached out to St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison about finding other local certified therapy dogs for his program.
“I have eight rotating volunteers who bring their own therapy dogs to the program, and we’ll generally have two or three for each session,” Messerman said.
The canines, along with their owners, sit on mats in one of the rooms in the back of the Children’s Department at the library. When kids arrive, they sign in at the children’s desk, are given a name tag and wait until their name is called for a 10-15 minute session with the dog.
“It’s a great way for the kids to practice reading when they’re feeling happy and relaxed,” said Molly Adams, director of the Children’s Department. “It helps to promote a love of books and introduces them to the library. And it’s a good reason to have dogs in the library.”
Kids can bring their own book, look through the library shelves for one or select one of the books the librarians make available for the program.
Allison Reilly, a kindergartner at Lincoln School, read to Winston, a 150-pound Newfoundland.
“Winston is a big, fluffy dog and a good listener. I like that I got him to look at the pictures,” she said.
Allison’s mom, Liz Reilly, is a third grade teacher at Washington Elementary School, and in addition to bringing her own children to PAWS to Read, she has also recommended it to her students.
“Reading aloud helps with fluency, and being with the dog really allows children to focus on the book,” she said.
Winston’s owner, Karen Lattin, brings him from Chatham for the sessions. She explained why they had Winston certified as a therapy dog three years ago.
“We saw people’s reactions to Winston and decided that we had to share him. He loves kids and loves coming to the library,” she said. “What’s great about this program is that dogs don’t judge.”
Messerman will graduate from Westfield High School in June, but assures parents that PAWS to Read will continue to be coordinated by his younger siblings, Ethan and Julia.
Upcoming PAWS to Read sessions will be held on Jan. 12 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., Feb. 23 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and March 30 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.