In the beginning, the dogs and the kids alike were excited and hopping around. After all, it’s not every day that you can walk into a public library to find a room full of canines happily wagging their tails. But then the kids sat down to read and the dogs lay down to listen. For the children it was wondrous, the dogs weren’t distracted by schedules or cellphones, they were just happy being in the same room as the kids, listening to their little voices reading children’s stories. Some dogs rolled over for the occasional scratch on the belly. Some began to close their eyes. And the kids read on.
Tail Waggin’ Tutors was held at the SouthShore Regional Public Library last week. The dogs and their humans were volunteers with the Tampa-based Paws For Friendship Inc., a nonprofit organization with no paid staff and a mission to bring canine happiness to children, the disabled, the elderly and even those at the end of life. The South County chapter of the organization is growing and expanding, with hopes to bring their services into area schools next year. Paws For Friendship works in conjunction with Therapy Dogs International.
“To date, we are providing visits to the Sun City Retirement Center, Palm Gardens, Freedom Plaza and Cypress Creek Assisted Living,” said Kelley Weaver, South County coordinator for Paws For Friendship. “In June we added the Paws To Read program with the SouthShore Library with hopes to grow into the local elementary schools as well as the Ruskin Library. We provide therapy dogs and owners to the library for the kids to read a book of their choice.”
With the ever-growing plethora of electronic distractions in today’s technological environment, watching a child read a book to a gentle dog is a remarkable sight. It was also an experience the children clearly enjoyed.
“Therapy animals don’t need to have special training to join,” Weaver continued. “They need to exhibit a gentle temperament, not react to other animals, not react to medical equipment, listen to handlers’ commands and enjoy attention.”
At the SouthShore Library, the volunteers varied in age, but many were retirees. And all appeared to revel in seeing and listening to the children read to the dogs.
“This is a passion for all of our members,” Weaver said. “We enjoy sharing our animals with those that need a little special love. I am very fortunate in South County as many of our volunteers are retired, and are able to provide numerous visits in our area. We would love to further expand in this area, and would love to encourage people to join. The great thing about Paws For Friendship is that we visit nursing homes, retirement centers, libraries, as well as hospice. So our volunteers have choices on where they would like to visit with their animals.”
Paws For Friendship is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is currently celebrating 21 years as a pet therapy organization. Other than the qualities listed above, the dogs themselves require little to no training. As was evident at the SouthShore Library last week, they seemed to naturally know what to do to bring out the best in the children, which included encouraging them to read.
According to Therapy Dogs International, for some children reading, particularly out loud, is difficult and can be the cause of self-esteem issues. The dogs, however, do not judge, they are not critical. They simply enjoy the experience, thus helping the children to do the same.
According to Weaver, Paws For Friendship is not limited to dogs, although they tend to be the stars of the organization.
“Any animal is considered as a pet therapy representative,” she said. “We have ferrets, turtles, cats, dogs, birds, pot-belly pigs, horses and even goats as current members.”
For the volunteers, it is an opportunity to make a direct and positive contribution to the community. But there are intangible, heartfelt benefits as well, as many of the volunteers sat down on the floor or in chairs nearby to simply enjoy hearing the children read.
For more information about Paws For Friendship Inc., visit their website at www.pawsforfriendshipinc.org. There are currently 2,589 chapters around the world with programs to meet the needs of “a 94-year-old with respiratory problems to a seven-year-old with cancer.” The organization states that they consider it an honor and a privilege to visit those in critical-care areas.
But at the SouthShore Library, it was all about children and reading, something everyone can agree is a good thing.
“If any teachers or schools are interested in learning more about our program, they are welcome to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 813-727-3854,” Weaver added. “We all love what we do, and enjoy volunteering our time.”
Paws For Friendship Inc. exists entirely through donations, and all services, which include animal rescue and adoptions, participation in charitable fundraising events and animal welfare issues, are provided free of charge. All members of the organization are volunteers.
Last week in the SouthShore Regional Library, seeing little fingers turn pages in books, hearing the children’s voices reading to the dogs who saw, listened and instantly loved them, there would be no possible way to charge. It was priceless.