- February 28, 2023
Five-year-old Kiara Rogalski couldn’t wait for what she would find at the Gulf Gate Library on March 15.
It wasn’t just the books that excited her, but also the idea of checking out a group of furry new friends.
Once she was settled on the floor of the library’s youth section, she quickly bonded with Sirius, an Italian Greyhound, placing stickers on his harness, offering him hugs, and also reading him picture books.
“They’re a little bit tickly,” she said, referring to the dogs' slobbery kisses. “It makes me laugh.”
Michele Guffanti, a youth library assistant at the Gulf Gate library, said the Read with the Dogs program, which allows children to read books to and interact with certified pet therapy dogs, has been featured weekly at the Gulf Gate Library since she began working there in 1992, but was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since September, however, the program has been up and running once again.
The program is held on varying schedules at some other Sarasota County libraries, including Elsie Quirk Library, North Port Public Library and Shannon Staub public library, although Gulf Gate Library is currently the only library to host it as often as once a week.
Many parents said that the week of March 15 was not their first time in attendance.
Dave Kreiseder said that day was the third or fourth time he was returning with his 6-year-old daughter, Tara Kreiseder. Tara's love of animals was key to her enjoyment of the event, and it was her growing enthusiasm for reading that kept the family coming back, he said.
Tara described the experience as "great, great, great."
She said while she loved petting the dogs, the best part was reading the books to them.
“She responds to it incredibly,” he said. “It’s the highlight of her week. It’s definitely given her a flavor for reading, an interest in it.”
Guffanti said such responses are common, providing a comment card from a parent who said as a result of the program, her first-grade daughter, who was initially frustrated with reading, eventually received a student of the month award for the improvements she made.
“We've had so many parents and kids come back, saying that the program started them reading because the dogs are accepting. They’re not the most critical," Guffanti said.
“It’s definitely contributed to her love of books and her advancement in reading,” Ulyana Havorka said of her 6-year-old daughter, Emilia Kalev. She said as the family did not have a dog at home, a canine reading companion was something the family had to travel to the library to experience.
However, it is the volunteers who make the program possible, Guffanti said. The dogs are provided and supervised by individuals from organizations including The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs and Humane Society of Sarasota County.
Phyllis Loewengart, a volunteer from Alliance of Therapy Dogs, said her dog, Kyna, is the second she has entered into the program.
“I think it's good exposure for the kids, and it's good for improving their reading,” she said. She said while some kids are initially afraid of the dogs, she sees them gradually grow more comfortable.
“It’s a win-win situation. If you get kids and parents in, then there’s more of a chance that they’ll get exposed to books, and that’s what our society needs.”
“The kids feel safe in reading,” Guffanti said. “The dogs have all been trained for this. The handlers have all helped the kids to read without being critical. You start reading, and that’s a lifetime skill.”
Havorka said she hopes the program will continue into the future so that her children, including 3-year-old Daniel Kalev, will be able to remain a part of it.
“We’re happy to be here. We hope it continues and that we will be able to enjoy it for many more years.”