Dogs are the listeners in kids reading program

Devin Kelly
Devin Kelly

Balancing a book on her lap, 6-year-old Leighlyn Hilst pointed at each word on the page, reading aloud.

When she stumbled, her grandmother, Ruth Curtis, helped her sound it out. That was a different kind of help than she could get from the other listener: a brownish-gold Labrador mix named Pagan. Pagan, a foot away, lay on her side and half-closed her eyes in calm encouragement.

Once a month, kids from kindergarten to fourth grade sit on the carpeted steps of the story theater on the second floor of Loussac Library and read out loud to dogs.

The "Pawsitive Reading" program aims to encourage reading skills, particularly among struggling or reluctant readers, said youth services librarian Linda Klein. The program started last summer as a partnership between Midnight Sun Service Dogs, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs, and Anchorage Public Library. Similar programs operate in libraries and schools across the United States.

On Saturday, Pagan and a 2-year-old goldendoodle named Swivel Shot lay calmly as children and parents came in to read for 20-minute shifts over the course of two hours.

"This is Swivel Shot. She likes to get cuddled up while she gets read to," trainer Sheila Barrett told one family as they sat down.

Klein said an average of 30 kids at a wide range of reading levels participate in the program, which runs the first Saturday of every month from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Tiffany Wirkus and her 6-year-old daughter, Piper, found out about the reading session while visiting the library a couple of months ago. Afterward, Piper couldn't stop talking about it, Tiffany Wirkus said.

They came back Saturday, and brought Piper's friend Keona Hess, 7. Both are high-level readers but were excited to hang out with the dogs, Tiffany Wirkus said.

"I wonder how soft they are?" Keona wondered. She soon got to find out for herself, gently petting Pagan's head while her friend read aloud next to her.

While the program is in place to help youngsters boost their reading skills, Piper sees it a bit differently, her mom said.

"She thinks she's helping the dogs to read," Tiffany Wirkus said.

At the very least, the program gives the dogs experience in obedience and socializing with people, said Jake Bainbridge, Pagan's trainer and a volunteer with Midnight Sun Service Dogs.

Between shepherding in groups of children and parents for 20-minute shifts, Klein shuffled through the plastic bin full of books for beginning readers.

"I pull a lot of dog books, because it's fun to say, 'Don't you think a dog would like a book about a dog?' " she said.

A few cat books are mixed in there too. When Leighlyn Hilst walked up to the bin, she picked out a "Splat the Cat" book.

This was Leighlyn's third time participating in the program, and she has read to Pagan each time. The second-grader was born with a condition called hydrocephalus, which leads to brain swelling and has slowed her progress developmentally, her grandmother said. She is enrolled in a special-needs program at Huffman Elementary School and has problems focusing and processing information.

In the past year, Leighlyn has made headway in her reading progress, and Curtis said that the service dog program seems to have helped.

Dogs scare Leighlyn. Her first time at the program, she refused to sit close to Pagan, and someone had to sit between her and the dog. Bainbridge also could barely hear her read.

In just three sessions, that's changed. Leighlyn sat about a foot away from Pagan on Saturday, the closest she's ever come to the dog, Bainbridge said. She also read in a loud, clear voice.

"You can watch kids come out of their shell," Bainbridge said. "It's a neat feeling.''

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.