Ella Harmon took her spot on the blanket, pulled out her books and began reading.
“I do not like that Sam I am,” the 7-year-old recited to her furry audience of one as she made her way through the pages of “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Sitting attentively at her side was Thomas, a 50-pound German shepherd/chow mix who was more interested in the company than the pronunciation.
Ella prefers it that way. When the Timmerman School first-grader comes to the library each week to practice reading to others, she doesn’t have to worry about critiques or missing a word.
“I love dogs and it helps my reading a lot,” Ella said.
Introduced last fall, the Richland County Public Library’s Paws for Reading program has been giving youngsters the opportunity to read to their canine friends, when they otherwise might find it intimidating to read to a teacher or a friend.
The program tries to make children comfortable as they’re learning to read and is supported by research that shows such practice can help build confidence.
“It has been amazing to watch the children respond (to the dogs), ” said Kristy Sligh, who runs the Sandhills Branch program, one of two along with a program at the Main Library downtown.
During the weekly reading sessions, children ages 6-12 can choose from a selection of books, including several about animals. In many cases, the children bring in books they have been reading at home.
Sligh said one of the biggest benefits of the program is that the young readers don’t feel any judgment, which can take away a lot of the pressure of reading.
“The dogs don’t care,” she said.
Thomas and Bruno, a 110-pound German shepherd, are trained therapy dogs whose handlers Barbara Mitchell and Brianna Clifford bring them in while the children read. The two animals are among about a dozen that are involved in the program.
Mitchell learned about the program by chance during a library visit last year.
“I came in to get a book and there was a big sign,” she said. “And I asked the librarian ‘do you need another dog?’”
Sligh said a side benefit has been that some children have been able to overcome their fear of dogs.
Ella’s mother, Andrea Harmon, said the program has been a big part in making reading fun for her daughter, who struggled with reading in kindergarten until her family discovered that she needed glasses.
“It was just a huge help for her,” Harmon said. “It was a matter of how could we find the fun again in reading and this was a way to do that.
“And who doesn’t love reading to a big, fluffy puppy?”