Volunteer program pairs young readers with therapy dog companions 

Paws 4 Stories is on now at North Vancouver District Public Library

click to enlarge Five-year-old Evan Molotkov takes a reading break with Virgil the basset hound, a certified therapy dog, at Capilano library Wednesday. Virgil routinely makes stops at Cap library as part of St. John Ambulance's Paws 4 Stories program. photo Ben Bengtson, North Shore News
  • Five-year-old Evan Molotkov takes a reading break with Virgil the basset hound, a certified therapy dog, at Capilano library Wednesday. Virgil routinely makes stops at Cap library as part of St. John Ambulance's Paws 4 Stories program. photo Ben Bengtson, North Shore News

Although he might not be able to read, no one likes relaxing with a good book more than Virgil.

In one corner of the children’s section at Capilano library, youngsters are moving at a rapid pace as they engage in the art of playtime, their curious and encouraging parents hovering close by. There are kids flipping through books, or using blocks to build something up before tearing it down, as well as others discovering that rolling around on the floor carries even more perks than sitting still.

In another corner of the room, something more tranquil is taking place. While heavy doses of energetic and rambunctious playtime are an essential part of early development, the Paws 4 Stories program offers a different respite in the everyday lives of kids.

Virgil, a 12-year-old basset hound, lies sprawled on the library floor, in perfect harmony. You wouldn’t know he was awake save for the odd flap of his ears or wiggle of a tail – but rest assured he’s doing his job.

He’s nestled in nice and cozy, flanked on either side by his owner and St. John Ambulance volunteer, Adrienne Salvail-Lopez, and five-year-old Evan Molotkov, a student at Capilano Elementary.

Molotkov is quietly reading aloud from a book in the Dumb Bunnies series, a classic from the 1990s which follows a family of rabbits that seem to do everything without rhyme or reason. It’s Molotkov’s first time being part of a 20-minute Paws 4 Stories session, but he already seems at ease, confidently sounding out each sentence with the gentle guidance of Salvail-Lopez and Virgil’s calming presence nearby.

“It was good,” Molotkov says after his turn is up and it’s another youth’s time to read with Virgil. “The books made Virgil so relaxed.”

North Vancouver resident Salvail-Lopez and her pooch Virgil have been participating in St. John Ambulance’s therapy dog programs for 10 years.

“I was looking for some volunteer work and I love animals and have this wonderful basset hound who is just the gentlest dog, and I thought he would be a natural at this,” explains Salvail-Lopez. “If you think your dog has the right temperament, you would just contact the therapy dog co-ordinator at St. John Ambulance. They do an initial assessment and determine if your dog is suitable.”

Virgil’s early forays as a therapy dog included visiting older adults at seniors’ residences and helping stressed out university students take a load off. He’s been doing Paws 4 Stories for a year now, according to Salvail-Lopez.

The idea behind the program, which runs intermittently at Lynn Valley, Parkgate, and Capilano branches of the North Vancouver District Public Library, as well as elsewhere on the North Shore, is to assist in helping to improve the reading skills of young children.

Through the program, youth of all reading skill levels get the opportunity to read some books with a friendly, certified therapy dog, such as Virgil, according to Salvail-Lopez. Reading alongside a therapy dog and trained volunteer, she says, can be especially motivational and helpful for kids that have some anxieties when it comes to reading.

“Many children find it easier to read to a dog than to a human,” says Salvail-Lopez. “The dog is completely accepting. The dog is going to love sitting with you and listening to you and snuggling up with you whether you read well or badly, whether you’re just learning to read or you’re an English-language learner.”

Salvail-Lopez encounters all manner of readers when she and Virgil sit down for a session. She says her favourite part of the job is watching a child who may at first be trepidatious and nervous, suddenly come alive. After a few minutes of reading among Virgil’s calming aura – and after getting to goof around with the friendly pooch – a kid’s voice might start to get louder, they’ll start sounding more confident, and next thing you know they’re laughing their way through the text, pointing out pictures to Virgil as they go along, according to Salvail-Lopez.

“I love hearing the stories that they’re reading because children’s literature now is so rich,” adds Salvail-Lopez. “I’ve seen the transition from a child who is very quiet and subdued to one who actually takes great pleasure in reading this book and having so much fun with it.”

Paws 4 Stories is currently running on Thursdays at Lynn Valley (6-7 p.m.) and Parkgate (4:30-5:30 p.m.) libraries and on Wednesday at the Capilano branch, from 3:30 to 4:50 p.m. For more information, including registration details, visit nvdpl.ca/events/calendar and search for Paws 4 Stories.

This story originally appeared here.

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