"I read three books to my dog today!" exclaimed a little boy after a recent session of "Paws to Read @ Your Library." His parents beamed as he ran back to pat the head of his doggie listener Nugget, a golden retriever and trained therapy dog. Actually, Nugget, like all the K9Connection dogs, is a family pet trained and certified as a therapy dog. Dogs and owners go through the course together. Both pets and owners wear identifying badges when they volunteer with the library's "Paws to Read @ Your Library" program, co-sponsored by the Williamsburg Regional Library and K9Connection. Here they come! A parade of golden retrievers, mixed breeds, chocolate labs, a Shih Tzu, a Cairn terrier, a lap-size apricot poodle, a black standard poodle who likes to shake hands, two St. Bernards, a rust and black patterned whippet, a couple of Shetland Sheep dogs, a snowy bichon frise. They amble, leap and march into the library to the Youth Services program room where they and their handlers meet children who have books in hand, ready to pair up with a doggie listener. Most of the children are between the ages of seven and ten; however, some are younger and listen while their parent reads to a dog.

Before the reading begins, K9 Connection handlers introduce their dogs, and readers introduce themselves. After a review of rules on how to interact with dogs, the reading begins.

Initiated in February, Paws to Read at the Williamsburg Regional Library is held once a month, on Sunday afternoons. The hour-long program is free, but each child must have a signed parental consent form.

Children reading to dogs is more than just fun. The program shows how registered therapy dogs and their handlers can help improve children's literacy skills. At ease with the dogs, who do not criticize mispronounced words, children read enthusiastically. Confidence grows with success as each child reads aloud. Tucker, the whippet, lies on his back and grins as he listens. Some dogs thump their tails; occasionally a dog is so relaxed he falls asleep. Children choose what they want read at Paws. Topics range from dog stories and riddles to poetry and adventure.

One grandmother who brought a grandson was thrilled. "He is reluctant to read at school or to anyone at home," she said, "but he loves to come here to read to a dog." At a recent session, a retired reading specialist commented "This is terrific. That little boy improved in the hour he read to us today."

Parents and grandparents are encouraged to accompany their children. If there are more children than dogs, two children share a listener. If the weather is pleasant, some dogs and children read in a shady spot on the grass outside the library; others occupy the program room where dogs and kids sprawl on the carpeted floor. One little girl brings her own pillow.

A poster in the library features the next Paws to Read program. When the father of a little girl stopped to ask a librarian about the Paws program, his daughter interrupted. "Do we have to bring our dog, Daddy?" "No," he said, "our dog's attention span is too short for chapter books."

Each child is given a bookmark shaped like a dog biscuit. As a little boy left last Sunday, his "bookbone" was tucked in the middle of his book. "We're going to finish this next time," he said, "Piper really likes this story."

One boy ran back into the library to announce he would have to miss the next Paws to Read. "I'm leaving to go to Boy Scout camp," he said, "I just may have to write my dog a letter."

Learn more about this and other innovative library programs at the VLA/VALL Annual Conference, November 5-7 at The Homestead.

Lillian Barrett is Youth Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library.