Pets & Animals

Kids get shelter dogs' tails wagging by reading them tales

Who wants a bedtime story? Well, your local shelter dog might — and at the Humane Society of Missouri, that's just what they're getting.

In the Book Buddies Reading Program, trained volunteers ages 5-16 read to the shelter dogs, helping them gain confidence and grow comfortable with visitors.

“We saw more and more rescue animals that were shy, fearful, and stressed out in the shelter environment," explained JoEllyn Klepacki, the society's assistant director of education. “Unfortunately, these dogs are less likely to get adopted, since they tend to hang back instead of engage when potential adoptees come through.

Courtesy of Amber Willard Hinsley
Summer camper turned regular volunteer Alex Hinsley reads to her dog buddy Wilbur.

“We also saw more children who had visited us through field trips or summer programs asking for consistent, hands-on opportunities to make a difference.”

In monthly training sessions, the young volunteers learn how to interact with the dogs.

Humane Society of Missouri
Trained Book Buddies read to the shelter dogs, helping them gain confidence and comfort with visitors.

“First, I walk them through the area where the dogs are kept,” Klepacki told TODAY.com. “Then, I take them to a classroom and ask them to close their eyes and imagine what it’s like to be one of [the dogs]. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell?

“Their responses are spot-on: cleaning chemicals, urine … one little boy even said he could smell the fear of the other dogs. Doing this helps them empathize and look at things from the dog’s perspective.”

Humane Society of Missouri
A group of the Book Buddies pose at a holiday event.

Through a slide show, the kids learn to recognize stress signals in a dog’s body language. They also learn how to approach such dogs — sitting sideways, with quiet voices and “library behavior” — and how to reward them with kibble if they respond.

While the shelter doesn’t have hard numbers, Klepacki believes the program has made a huge difference. “Just look at the dogs in these photos,” she said. “These were dogs that before were hiding in the backs of the rooms with their tails tucked. You can see the connection — you can see them responding to those kids.”

Humane Society of Missouri
“Just look at the dogs in these photos,” Klepacki said. “You can see them responding to those kids.”

While attending the society’s week-long summer camp, Alex Hinsley, 8, bonded with Annie, a black pit-bull mix Klepacki described as “sullen and indifferent.”

Courtesy of Amber Willard Hinsley
Volunteer Alex Hinsley, 8, with Annie. Alex believes the dogs listen better to stories about other dogs.

“She was a shy dog, but she paid attention when I read to her," Alex said. "By the end of the week, she was so open and nice and polite.” Annie found a “forever home” shortly after.

Now Alex, an aspiring veterinarian, begs her mom to drive the 20 miles to the Humane Society at every opportunity. “I’m like, ‘Get in the car woman, let’s go see those dogs!’” she said.

Alex keeps a bag of books in her room, so she’s always ready to go. She passes along a pro tip: She believes the dogs prefer stories about other dogs, such as Scooby-Doo and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Humane Society of Missouri
Alex Hinsley even celebrated her birthday at the Humane Society of Missouri in early February. Instead of gifts, her guests brought items for the animals, such as blankets and treats.

Klepacki thinks other shelters could easily implement similar programs. “We have a classroom for training, and we have a library of about 100 donated books: That's it. For next to no cost, the payoff is immeasurable.”

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