EXCHANGE: Tail Wagging tutor helps children read

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COAL CITY, Ill. (AP) - Ray can’t talk, read, organize books or work the computer, and he often falls asleep on the job, but the 5-year-old Labrador is one of the Coal City Public Library’s most beloved volunteers.

“He’s so calm and he’s such a good leader. It’s just like that show, everybody loves Ray, you know?” said Kate Burk, Ray’s owner and handler.

He is a certified therapy dog, and every Wednesday night, Ray visits the library for the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program where children can practice their comprehension skills by reading to him.

“I think it’s definitely made him a better reader,” said Kristin Kurdenok, mother of 8-year-old Owen, who has participated in the program since kindergarten. “I was so scared he would want to stop once he got older, but he loves it. He looks forward to it every week.”

Tail Waggin’ Tutors is a nationwide program organized by Therapy Dogs International, but began in Coal City in fall 2011 after a library patron trained their dog to work in the program.

The program aims to provide a relaxed atmosphere for children to practice their reading and comprehension skills, specifically, children who have difficulty reading aloud and have developed self-esteem issues as a result.

The trained therapy dogs are nonjudgmental listeners and can get children excited about reading.

“Kids can relax and read without being judged or stopped at every other word,” said Suzanne Steiner of Therapy Dogs International’s Facility Department. “It helps build their confidence and lets them associate reading with something fun.”

Steiner said Tail Waggin’ Tutors is established in several libraries across the country and receives overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents and handlers.

“When they alerted us to this program, we thought it sounded fantastic - just a really neat thing to do,” said Rene Norris, director of the Children’s Department of the Coal City Public Library, which is one of the only facilities in the area offering the program.

Therapy dogs are trained to behave, sit quietly and provide affection for the children. Currently, the library in Coal City rotates four therapy dogs from Diamond, Coal City and Morris throughout the week and works with about 20 local kids.

“The kids enjoy Ray so much and he loves getting to see the kids,” said Burk, who fostered and then adopted Ray when he was 2 years old. “He’s really good with kids. He used to be in a family with two little kids. He just migrates to them.”

Norris said children of all ages are welcome to participate in the program, but they try to encourage children who can read or recognize at least a few words.

“We’ve actually had a couple of kids that just looked at the pictures and told a story to go along with them,” Norris said. “The oldest we’ve had was fifth or sixth grade, but I would open it up to anybody. I think it could be really great for special-needs kids.”

Parents must register their child beforehand to reserve their 30-minute session with one of the library’s therapy dogs. Usually, the handler and a librarian stay in the room with the child but try not to interfere with their reading.

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