This Saturday, 16 kids from ages 6 to 12 will pick up books and practice their reading skills for a captive audience — dogs and cats awaiting adoption at the local animal shelter.
North Country Animal League in Morrisville has a new program that starts this weekend. Called Reading Buddies, it introduces volunteer opportunities specifically for children.
“A lot of families are coming in to volunteer together, and kids can’t walk dogs alone due to their age,” said Tracy Goldfine, the shelter’s executive director. “They want to help, but there’s not a great opportunity right now.”
She hopes Reading Buddies will give those kids “more of a purpose” at the shelter.
Both dogs and cats are part of the program, although not every animal will participate.
Goldfine, who used to work at the Children’s Literacy Foundation based in Waterbury, believes Reading Buddies will help both animals and kids. It’s a good chance for kids to sharpen their reading skills at their level, and Goldfine hopes it will whet their appetite for books.
“Reading has a rhythm to it and it helps to soothe the animals. Kids get into it. It helps excite them about reading,” she said.
It helps the animals, too. The animals that are adopted the fastest are the ones with the most social skills, Goldfine said, and since many families looking for a pet have children, an animal is more likely to be chosen if it gets along well with kids.
“A shy dog may venture out to see what this small person is doing,” Goldfine said. “We’ll then have the kid give the dog a treat. If they can get rewarded for approaching people,” it will help shelter staff train animals to be more adoptable.
Goldfine praised the shelter’s staff for their empathy toward the animals, but said with all the administrative and maintenance work that needs to be done, “it can be hard to give them the one-on-one attention they crave,” she said. Reading Buddies will give the animals more interaction, plus teach kids more about animal behavior.
Kids will be trained to understand the basics of how animals are cared for at the shelter before they settle in with a book and a carpet square. Then, they’ll meet monthly to talk about what they’ve learned.
“They’ll learn how kids can help animals with a calm presence, not banging on cages or barking at the dogs,” Goldfine said. “Our main goal is to make it really fun. We’ll teach them how to communicate nonverbally with body language.”
Reading Buddies is part of Goldfine’s initiative to increase the shelter’s educational offerings.
She got the idea after a group of Morrisville Elementary School kids decided to make a donation to the shelter. After receiving the donation, Goldfine brought a shelter dog to the school and gave a talk about the shelter.
About a month ago, that group of kids took a school bus to the shelter and read to the animals in groups of two.
“All those kids wanted to come back,” Goldfine said, and Reading Buddies was born.
The shelter picked up a small library of books for all reading levels with a $2,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation and started signing kids up.
Goldfine is encouraged by registration so far — 16 kids registered for the March training session, and she capped April’s session at 10. They’re coming from Johnson, Hyde Park, Morrisville, Stowe, Cambridge and Waterbury.
Goldfine also hopes to bring back a summer camp at North Country Animal League, as well as a fall after-school program.
She hopes that by educating kids — the next generation of adopters — shelter animals will be considered a better alternative than purchasing pets from breeders or stores.
“When people think of getting a pet, we hope they’ll think of adopting,” Goldfine said. “We want people to say, ‘Let’s get a rescue.’”