HIGHLAND PARK – When a first grade boy on the autism spectrum began reading to a German Shepard from K-9 Reading Buddies at Deerfield Library, he went from barely whispering to eventually becoming a more confident reader. Remarkably, after he aged out of the program in fifth grade, he asked to come back as a youth volunteer to help other kids by assisting adults in running the library programs.
This is one of many success stories from K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore who will be hosting the K9 Pup Strut & Expo on May 5 at Sunset Woods in Highland Park.
“The goal of the K9 Pup Strut & Expo is to create awareness of registered therapy dogs on the North Shore that make a difference for children from pre-school to high school,” said Carole Yuster, executive director and founder.
K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore is celebrating 10 years as a non-profit, and through fundraising it would like to expand its services beyond the North Shore.
Yuster explained how K-9 Reading Buddies assist children in reading.
“Just being in the same room as the dog reduces anxiety and lowers blood pressure,” she said. “When you do pet the dog your oxytocin level goes up and it begins to relax you.”
Yuster said when a therapy dog is paired with a child who is a struggling reader it has the same effect by reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure and calming the child down. This makes the child feel more comfortable reading and depending on the age of the child, the dog handler will use the dog as a “production tool.”
This means if the child can’t comprehend the reading material, the dog handler will ask the child to explain it to the dog. Likewise, if a child doesn’t understand what a word means, the dog handler will suggest looking the word up, so the child can help the therapy dog learn a new word.
“Then the child becomes the teacher and the dog becomes the student and it takes the focus away from the student,” said Yuster. “It relaxes them and creates an experience that motivates children to want to read.’
Yuster added that animal assisted activity involves partnering with teachers for goal setting and documenting with children from first through eighth grade.
In addition, K-9 Reading Buddies reads to kids in pre-school and does presentations in kindergarten to teach students how to safely approach a dog.
The non-profit organization recently brought in eight new therapy dog teams and held training at Highwood Library. The buddies include every breed from little Morkies and Bichons to 150-pound Leonbergers.
“Our tagline is a reading buddy of a different breed and it’s literal,” said Yuster. “We have a variety of breeds that are wonderful dogs with great temperaments.”
K-9 Reading Buddies are available at several North Shore schools and libraries.
Yuster explained that teachers identify children reading below the 25 percentile who may have social or emotional issues, and those children are invited to read to a K-9 Reading Buddy after the parents sign a permission slip.
Teens work as “handlers” and will see the same students throughout the school year for 20 minutes each session. The K-9s are typically onsite for no longer than an hour whether they’re at school or libraries.
K-9 Reading Buddies also matches their dogs with children located in seven different North Shore libraries. Yuster said when kids pre-register to read to a K-9 Reading Buddy, they receive fun takeaways along with the thrill of reading to a dog.
“We do see a progression in test scores and support existing literacy programs,” said Yuster. “We motivate kids to read and when kids want to read they read more often, which helps them become stronger readers.”
Yuster hopes to attract more volunteers comprised of mentors, youth volunteers and library services coordinators at the K9 Pup Strut & Expo.
“The point of the Expo is to create something that hasn’t existed on the North Shore by bringing together the dog-loving community, the academic community, and the social and emotional health community all in one place to share information,” said Yuster. “People can register online for a one-mile walk in Sunset Woods with or without a dog, which is the fundraising portion that helps K-9 Reading Buddies grow.”
The free Expo will feature a tent where kids can line up to read dog-themed books from Glencoe and Highland Park Libraries to two K-9 Reading Buddies every hour from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. A photographer will be taking photos of the kids’ reading to their K-9 Reading Buddies.
Additionally, Nancy Gee author of The Secret Room published by MacKenzie Press (November 1, 2017), will give away 100 books during a book launch. The book is especially fitting, as it’s about library dogs.
Some other events will include:
- Q & A with Dennis Hill, an internationally known dog trainer seen on PBS who is “force free” and doesn’t train with treats
- Amazing dog tricks with Robin’s Dog Stars
- Dog rescues
- A best dog costume contest
- A dog owner look-alike contest and raffles
“One out of two houses in Highland Park have at least one dog and the Expo will be a great opportunity for families to learn about all of the resources that are available,” said Yuster. “But it’s not just limited to people with dogs, it’s for everybody.”
The K9 Pup Strut & Expo hosted by K-9 Reading Buddies, in partnership with the Park District of Highland Park and Amdur Productions, will be held on Saturday, May 5 at Sunset Woods in Highland Park from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information visit: www.k9pupstrut.org .