2016 Pictures of the Year

Dancer, left, a Companions, Inc. dog owned by Jamie (center) and Bud Marschner gives a "high-five" to Jeffrey Reudgen, 8, right, as dogs from several local organizations visit Barnes and Noble to promote community outreach and awareness Saturday morning, October 15, 2016. Eric Engman/News-Miner

Kids can read aloud to a captive audience over the next month, thanks to a special project put together by Noel Wien Library and Companions Inc.

The two groups are bringing together young readers and dogs who are good listeners.

In years past, Companions Inc provided pet dogs that youngsters would read to, aloud, in person. Now, it is going to happen virtually.

“This is the COVID version,” said Jean McDermott of Companions Inc. 

These specially trained pets haven’t been able to visit anyone in person during the past year, due to COVID. The longtime non-profit agency usually provides therapy animals for visits to those in need. Before covid, they made regular visits to Denali Center, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Fairbanks Pioneers Home and the Fairbanks Senior Center. They participated in Reading With Kids days at the local Barnes & Noble Booksellers store and regularly visited the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus during finals week, to help reduce test-induced stress for students.

When the library proposed Companion Inc dogs participate in a virtual read-aloud to dogs program, McDermott jumped on it.

“I was really excited,” McDermott said. “I immediately told her, I want to do this.”

The Companions Inc. board had the same reaction, she said.

Companion Inc. volunteers immediately signed up their pets to participate. Each dog has a shift of 30 minutes to one hour, with just two 10-minute sessions every 30 minutes. The remaining time allows set-up, time for child’s parents to dial in, and making sure there are no technical problems. A parent or caregiver must be present and a library staff member will also be present to facilitate the visit.

The program begins on Thursday, March 25 and runs every Thursday from 3-5 p.m. through the end of April.

Kids from kindergarten through sixth grade sign up online for a 10-minute slot. Young readers choose a story they want to read aloud and at the allotted time, they tune into their Zoom connection (which arrives via email the day before the session) and find their canine audience. They never leave home.

“Dogs sit quietly in front of the camera and the kid sits in front of his or her iPad or computer and reads a story to the dog,” McDermott said.

Youth Services Librarian Susan Jones said sign-ups are open and available for registration now. There’s a post on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Libraries facebook page that has a link to registration on the web page calendar at http://bit.ly/30ZxMLP.

This is a free program.

Why would a kid want to read aloud to a dog?

“In general, dogs are nonjudgmental,” Susan Jones said. “A lot of libraries have done this in person.”

That is just not possible right now. So this could be the next best thing.

“It’s a feel good thing,” Jones said. “I think it’s a combination of dogs just being there and it’s fun.”

“Maybe the idea of reading online isn’t something people will find as appealing as they would if dogs were here in person, but you have to start somewhere,” she added.

Reading aloud allows children to sharpen focus, improve vocabulary, increase comprehension, strengthen listening skills and intrigue young minds. Studies also show that reading to dogs can improve self-confidence and public speaking skills. Besides that, spending time with canine companions combats symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Jones sent word out to school librarians and encourages teachers with young readers to consider signing up for the unique read-aloud session.

“If there are teachers who would like students to be practicing more, this is another venue for that to happen,” she said.

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.