reading to dogs helps kids with autism, young girl reading to small pug

Story PALS: How Reading to a Dog Gave My Daughter a Voice

My daughter, Julia, and I discovered a public library program called Story PALS back in 2009. The program is designed for reluctant readers ages 6 – 12. A child comes to the library and reads aloud to a dog once a week to make them less anxious about reading aloud in front of people. The dogs come from an organization called PALS, a pet therapy organization.

Julia was 9 years old at the time we started the program. Julia has autism and is highly anxious, shy, withdrawn and has difficulty speaking. When she is very nervous, she can’t speak at all. This is the reason why I put Julia in the Story PALS program – to help her find her public voice.

A long slow road based on persistence and a patient volunteer

On the first day, all Julia could do was cry because she was terrified of dogs. She would not even come into the reading room. There was a volunteer there, Lori, with her little dog Maddie. She was very encouraging and gave both Julia and I the confidence to keep trying. Eventually, Julia calmed down and was willing to read to Maddie. Lori instinctually knew what Julia needed without having any formal training in autism – a gentle voice, patience, keeping Maddie on her leash a safe distance from Julia, and encouragement. With these qualities, a relationship grew.

Lori decided to commit to the program as long as Julia wanted to attend. It has now been 9 years. Having the same dog and person every week has allowed Julia to blossom in this program because it takes predictability to lessen anxiety in a person with autism. When the anxiety disappeared, Julia’s voice emerged. Julia went from mumbling, unintelligible speech to speaking clearly. Conversation started to happen. Over time, she has become highly interactive with both of Lori’s dogs Mika and Maddie, the small Brussels Griffon breed. (Big dogs were just too scary for Julia.)

Predictability was the key to reducing anxiety

Lori gave Julia a picture of Maddie and Mika to have with her at home so that she had a reminder of those dogs even when the program was not in session. She told stories about both dogs – what they get up to during the day, mischief, daily walks and adventures. Julia got over her debilitating fear of dogs and now allows Mika to lick her hand and sit near her. There has been tremendous growth.

For a person with autism, having a steady person in their lives is key for their development and success. Lori has been accepting of Julia and has always treated her with the highest respect. She rarely missed a session in the past 9 years. My son Marc, also autistic, has now joined the reading sessions too. Marc, now 20, reads one non-fiction adult book per week aloud to himself at home. This program has been a highlight in their lives.

Story Pals has been an unmitigated success

Story PALS has had the greatest impact on Julia’s development of any program or therapy we have tried. Committed volunteers like Lori make all the difference. Her involvement with Julia changed her life and in turn, opened our world. We can now go places with confidence, even if there is a dog on the street. We couldn’t do that before this program. We couldn’t even go on a holiday where they might be a dog on a beach or in a cabin next door.

The Story PALS program fosters relationships within the community. It connects people that might otherwise have never met. It is an inclusive program that has a broader application beyond just helping reluctant readers. I saw that application to the autism world and the library staff encouraged the relationship.

Animals really can be the best therapy

Interacting with a dog lowers anxiety and aides in communication. A dog doesn’t judge, correct, or interrupt a person which can build confidence. Because library programs like Story PALS have no fees, there is no financial risk to participation; another barrier is removed. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by coming.

Story PALS changed our quality of life. It also showed me that simple things can make a difference. You don’t need a special service dog to do this activity with, just an ordinary dog from the community that is well behaved and used to being around children. Think of the possibilities for schools, daycares, and community programs! All you need is a furry friend and a good book. Happy reading!

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