The Pleasanton Public Library recently reached a milestone anniversary for one of its most popular and impactful programs -- Paws to Read.
Meant to encourage literacy and animal welfare, Paws to Read allows elementary school students in first through fifth grades to read in one-on-one sessions with dogs from Valley Humane Society's certified canine comfort teams. Animals in these teams are trained to provide emotional support and comfort.
To celebrate two decades of successful operation, a ceremony was held on Jan. 28 at the library. Following opening remarks by several organizers, the event featured a variety of games and activities for both students and adults in the audience.
A main goal of Paws to Read is to help improve and encourage literacy among children via a low stakes and comforting environment. It is said to inhibit a growth in confidence and self-esteem for the students who partake.
More than 15,000 young children in Pleasanton have taken part in the program since its inception.
Melanie Sadek, executive director of Valley Humane Society, shared remarks about the 20th anniversary with the Weekly.
"The Paws to Read program, that started 20 years ago as a partnership between Valley Humane Society and the Pleasanton Library, has blossomed into a larger program," Sadek said.
Beginning in November 2002, the Pleasanton Library was the first in the state to offer the program; other branches in the state and nation have since followed suit.
"This program thrives because it is proven to help build literacy skills in young readers," Sadek added. "Children are required to meet milestones in their learning development and for those who struggle to learn the skill, reading can be associated with strong anxiety. This anxiety creates a learning block in the child's brain."
Sadek discussed how the environment created by Paws to Read is advantageous to the children.
"When we introduce a positive association with the act of reading, that (learning) block starts to be removed. It is an incredible experience to watch," she said. "Our handlers are very special volunteers with incredible dogs. They volunteer their time to help young readers thrive."
Sadek is the founder of Murphy's Paw, a retail pet store in Downtown Pleasanton. She is also the vice president of the California Animal Welfare Association.
Local resident Chuck Deckert has worked closely with Paws to Read, his dog Zoey has participated in the program for the last five years.
In a conversation with the Weekly, Deckert recalled one of the most touching stories between his dog Zoey and a student within the program. Several years ago they encountered a boy with autism and speaking disabilities at one of the Pleasanton Library's reading sessions.
"The child had what was called selective mutism," Deckert explained. Selective mutism is a condition where the child, either due to anxiety or other reasons, is usually only able to speak in the home to their parents or those they feel comfortable with.
"While he was reading to the boy, the boy just stayed quiet. But then about 5 or 10 minutes into it, he started to move his lips to the words of the book," Deckert said. "The father's eyes started to get very moist; pretty soon he had tears coming down his eyes."
In a short amount of time, the 7-year-old boy then started to whisper the words of the book along with his father, something he had never done before.
"At that point, the father lost it. He just started crying and couldn't keep himself together. At the end of the 30-minute session, they both walked out of the room arm and arm," Deckert said. "He found a way to speak. That was the breakthrough moment that his father had been waiting for all that time."
The program regularly sees children who have special needs, autism or reading challenges. Many parents and organizers witness the real-time benefits from working with the certified therapy dogs.
Paws to Read operates in seasonal sessions, with the current winter 2023 session running through Feb. 28. Registration for the program is required. All sessions are held at the Pleasanton Library.
To register or find out more information about Paws to Read, visit cityofpleasantonca.gov.
Editor's note: Chuck Deckert, who volunteers with Paws to Read, is a freelance photographer with the Pleasanton Weekly and captured the pictures that accompany this story.
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