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PAWS for Reading brings together dogs and the children who read to them

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 27, 2009 - Tucker the golden retriever probably couldn't hear much of Sarah Gunter's quiet-as-a-mouse reading from "The Cat in the Hat" Monday at the Buder branch of the St. Louis Public Library, but he nestled contentedly next to the 5-year-old throughout her recitation, save for a few wags of his big bushy tail and an attempted kiss or two.

The golden boy listened just as patiently as Evan Saupe, 11, of St. Louis delivered a sometimes dramatic reading from a "SpongeBob SquarePants" book and as 7-year-old Eli Nichols of St. Louis shared his first-grade reading assignment.

Eli was doing homework at the library with his mom Melisa Nichols and his sister Amelia, 3, when they saw Tucker at work.

"It's fun,'' said Eli. "I have a dog at home. I should try reading to her."

Tucker, who is a big softy with kids -- and everyone else -- has added the library to the list of nursing homes and hospitals he visits with his trainer Karen Bellville. They volunteer with Support Dogs, the St. Louis nonprofit that provides pet-therapy programs as well as assistance dogs to people with special needs.

The library sessions are an offshoot of the organization's PAWS for Reading program, which Bellville helped start with Bill Dahlkamp, director of programs, in 2002. Volunteers take dogs to schools where they serve as "listeners" for young readers.

"This is right up my alley," said Bellville, a retired second-grade teacher who taught in the Lindbergh District and enjoys being back in the classroom with Tucker. "Reading is a key to everything else.''

Bellville said Tucker and the other dogs in the program are nonthreatening and nonjudgmental, no matter how well a child reads.

"It's nice to curl up with a fluffy dog to read," she said. "Dogs don't know if a child misses a word, and they don't care if a child reads fast or slow.''

The library partnered with Support Dogs on a pilot effort last spring. This fall, PAWS volunteers and their furry friends visit the Central library and various branches on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. The program, which is supported by Nestle Purina PetCare, is for children ages 4 to 12. Reading times, usually five to 10 minutes, are logged and when the young readers reach 60 minutes, they are given a prize: a book for their home library, often dog-themed.

Jennifer Gillum, children's program coordinator for the St. Louis Public Library, said the connection between the children and the dogs can turn into a lifelong connection with reading -- and with their library.

"The dogs act as an incentive for the kids to come in," said Gillum. "A lot of kids who may not have a dog at home enjoy coming to the library and reading. It has gone over well with families and has increased attendance in our children's libraries.''

Sarah's mother, Pam Gunter of St. Louis, said her daughter looks forward to going to the library on Mondays to read to Tucker.

"It's an excellent, excellent program," said Gunter. "She likes to read, as it is, but I think having these kids read to a dog is wonderful. It gives them an incentive to read, and the dog just loves it. And they love him."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.