“Close your eyes and imagine how the dog might feel,” educator Marlene Katz said to a group of about 18 children sitting cross-legged on top of large fleece blankets adorned with tiny, multicolored animal paws.
“How do you think they feel?” she asked the class.
“Happy,” one child said to the nodding instructor.
“Shy,” another added, her eyes pressed shut.
“Excited,” a child blurted out with a giggle.
The children sitting in the classroom at the Humane Society of Missouri, empathizing with the dogs are among the first to earn the title of “Reading Buddy” — giving them full access to read their favorite books to any of the stray dogs in the facility.
“We created the Shelter Buddies Reading Program for two main reasons,” said Assistant Director of Education JoEllyn Klepacki. “We wanted to help comfort our shy, fearful and worried dogs that are in our shelter. We also wanted to give children in our community more opportunities to get involved, to bring them into our shelter and have them connect and engage with the animals.”
The first step to join the Shelter Buddies Reading program is to register online for a 90-minute training session that stresses the buddies’ role and importance to the dog. It teaches the children how to read the body language of dogs so they can determine if a dog is relaxed, anxious, stressed or anything in between.
Children also learn how their actions affect the dog and how to present themselves in a non-threatening manner. Klepacki said the communication of body language is mutual and can be interpreted with the right knowledge.
Ideally, children will decrease their stature by sitting on the ground, facing sideways, keeping a calm and quiet composure. Kids are taught to look for signs of stress in the dogs, such as excessive spinning, tucking their tails or licking their lips, and approach and comfort them first.
The ultimate goal is to reward dogs who approach the front of their kennels with treats and praise.
This is just custom-made for my kid. Any opportunity that we have for kids to learn service when they are younger is going to help them as they get are older.
Karen Perry on the Buddies Reading Program
“We know in the shelter animal welfare field that dogs who approach the kennel front to greet potential adopters get adopted much more quickly,” Klepacki said. “It also teaches the children to see things from their point of view and imagine what it’s like to be that dog on the other side of the glass, in the kennel, looking out.”
“We ask them to put themselves in the dog’s paws.”
A teacher, mother and pet owner in St. Louis, Karen Perry, 44, found the program through a Facebook post. She was excited to finally find a program for Molly, her 7-year-old daughter, because many programs had an age requirement she did not meet.
Perry feels her daughter has a lot of empathy already for her age because her own pet was a shelter rescue.
“My daughter Molly just has a love for animals. She’s kind of obsessed with dogs especially,” Perry said. “She gets anxious in some situations where there might be an opportunity to volunteer, but around dogs she’s at ease and so calm.”
Father of two young boys, Mike Duchek, 49, of St. Louis, thought that the union of working with dogs, earning service hours and practicing reading skills made “the perfect program for them.”
Duchek and his two sons, Adam, 11, and Devin, 9, also run fundraisers and raffles for Mutts n Stuff, a pit bull rescue based out of St. Louis.
It also teaches the children to see things from their point of view and imagine what it's like to be that dog on the other side of the glass, in the kennel, looking out. We ask them to put themselves in the dog’s paws.
JoEllyn Klepacki, assistant director of education at Humane Society of Missouri
He is pleased to see their children continuing to give back to stray dogs in their own capacity, while also learning about how to react to the dogs’ body language. Devin spent the majority of his time reading to a well-mannered white beagle mix. He was confident that the dog spent “at least 98 percent of the time listening, probably 2 percent walking around the cage and chewing on his toys.”
Devin politley apologized to his new four-legged friend before finding a new buddy to read his favorite book to.
“They get a lot of energy and enthusiasm being around these animals,” Duchek said. “Hopefully, at home, they can see with their own dog when she’s happy, when she’s scared. … I think the boys will benefit as much from this as much as the dogs will.”
Perry agreed that seeing her child excited to volunteer on her own accord was a total “win-win.”
“This is just custom-made for my kid,” Perry said. “Any opportunity that we have for kids to learn service when they are younger is going to help them as they get are older.”
Eliza Siebert, a 13-year-old from Richmond Heights,, Mo., collected 58 books for about three weeks as part of a service project for her confirmation.
“I just thought it was really cool to help the dogs be less afraid of people and help kids be (better) with dogs,” Siebert said. “It was really cool talking to all the dogs and seeing how they acted. I’m definitely coming back.”
Belleville Area Humane Society is also eager to create their own version of the reading program for children in the metro-east. Their first session will play host to 21 students from Harmony Emge School District 175 on May 13.
“These are kids that need to sharpen their reading skills by spending time reading aloud,” said Katie Davis, executive director for the Belleville Area Humane Society. “Our animals love to have vistiors at the shelter, and they could certainly benefit from the exposure considering some of our animals go home with young children.
“I think having animals in the presense of young children is very benificial. All of our employees are adults; they are of working age. It is helpful to set up the animals to go home with families, to get exposed to how children act. They really can learn from each other.”
Klepacki is hopeful for more people, shelters and educators reach out to the Humane Society of Missouri to implement their own reading program. She is confident that this program will fit nicely in the holistic enrichment program that the shelter strives to maintain.
“We are trying to find different ways to engage the dogs and their natural behaviors while they are here,” Klepacki said. “This reading program is just one aspect of that and we are really glad to offer that.”
How to help
- Interested in signing up for the Shelter Buddies Reading Program? Visit the Humane Society of Missouri’s website to see availability.