Emma Meissner paused from reading aloud a book about Australian shepherds Saturday morning at the Billings Public Library, and she giggled.
“Are you trying to stop me from reading?” the 10-year-old Billings girl asked Rex, a 6-year-old Australian shepherd who lay on a red blanket next to her in the library’s story tower.
The dog had placed his paw in the middle of the page Emma was reading. After Emma laughed, Rex relocated his paw from the book to the girl’s leg so she could continue reading.
On the other side of the room, Oliver, a 2-½-year-old miniature schnauzer, gave 11-year-old Michael Sproul a lick as Michael read “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
“He kept on kissing me,” Michael, of Billings, said afterward.
In a pairing as natural as hot dogs and buns, kids sat with canines at the library to practice their reading skills. Saturday was the formal kickoff of the READ to a Dog program at the library.
It featured three of the seven dogs that have been certified as Reading Education Assistance Dogs through Intermountain Therapy Animals. At least some of the reading therapy teams will spend an hour on the first Saturday of each month listening to youngsters read from a set of books purchased especially for the program.
Some of the books are geared to early learners, and others are more advanced. Some are Dr. Seuss favorites, others detail the breeds of dogs who come to volunteer, and still others feature dog stories, with titles like “The Great Dog Wash,” “The Pigeon Wants a Puppy” and “Go Dog Go!”
“We’re excited to have this program,” children’s librarian Cindy Patterson said. “It’s basically for kids who are shy, who don’t want to read and who find more comfort in reading to a dog.”
But it’s not exclusively for that population, she added. Kids who are outgoing and love to read also are welcome to join in.
Reading out loud helps children with their literacy skills, Patterson said. And these dogs are specially trained to be attentive to the children who come to read.
“That gives the children the motivation they need to be able to practice their reading,” she said.
The program is funded through the Otto and Yvonne Mansfield Endowment at St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation. After brainstorming, library staff members decided on a therapy dog program and then got specifics about READ from the Bozeman Public Library, which has employed the program for a long time.
“These dogs had just recently been trained, and so it’s like all the stars aligned in the right places for us to be able to do this,” Patterson said.
READ to a Dog started with a soft opening in November, where children who happened to be at the library that day got to try it out. That was followed in December by a puppy party, and then the start of the actual program on Saturday.
It’s important to turn reading into something children enjoy, Patterson said.
“Reading affects every area of learning,” she said. “If they can’t read or they struggle with reading, they struggle with science, history and math. And so reading is really the foundation for every other academic subject.”
On Saturday, Rex, Lincoln, a 2½-year-old Shetland sheepdog, also known as a Sheltie, and Oliver stayed busy. They were joined, respectively, by owners Julie Myers and Betty Sanderson, of Billings, and Deede Baker, of Shepherd.
Kids and dogs are a natural fit, Baker said. Dogs are nonjudgmental and affectionate.
“I think it creates a more comfortable, intimate type of environment,” she said. “And the dogs, they enjoy the attention and the quiet time, just being able to sit and have that moment.”
Baker, who is an avid reader, likes the idea of exposing children to books in such a relaxed setting.
“It’s a great hobby, and it opens so many doors,” she said.
Emma, who also loves to read and who just moved to Billings from Maryland, was sold on the new program.
“That was the best experience ever,” she said afterward. “My old library didn’t do that.”
Emma, who came to the library with her mom, Holli Meissner, liked having Rex lay beside her. And she enjoyed petting his silky fur and watching him roll over on his back and look up at her.
“It made me feel awesome,” Emma said.
Michael and his sister, Violet Sproul, accompanied by their mom, Arica Lipp, both had fun with the dogs.
“I’m going to do it again next month,” Violet said.