COVID-19: Popular Free Library PAWS for Reading Program Makes Shift Online

Volunteer Debi Leonard and her dog Bodie sit and listen to readers during a PAWS for Reading virtual session.

When COVID-19 hit, Becky Shaknovich, the head of the children’s department at Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library on Vine Street, knew her job was going to look different. 

Shaknovich said the library had to rethink its entire programming system, considering moving everything online. Thankfully, reorganizing wasn’t as difficult as she expected. 

“It’s fortunate for our department in particular, and children’s services in general, that children’s programming lends itself very easily and smoothly to transition into virtual programming,” she said.

One of their most popular programs was PAWS for Reading, where readers of all ages read aloud to therapy animals in a one-on-one setting. Readers come to the libraries and get the chance to read for 10 to 15 minutes to a dog, cat, or rabbit. 

Prior to COVID-19, a reader meets a decked-out therapy pet for the PAWS for Reading program.
(Image courtesy of Becky Shaknovich from the Free Library of Philadelphia)

The Free Library and PAWS for People, the organization behind PAWS for Reading, worked quickly to move story time to Zoom once the pandemic hit and libraries closed down.

“We credit [PAWS] with coming up with this whole virtual version,” Shaknovich said. “We might have tailored it a bit to our particular library, but mostly we just used their methodology.”

Before COVID-19, Kate Rosenthal, volunteer and site manager for PAWS for People, would visit multiple library locations across southern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland with one of PAWS’ 600 volunteer teams. Each team consists of a human and a pet, trained to work as a therapy animal. 

Reading to an animal, as opposed to a human, gives the individual a non-judgemental listener, Rosenthal said.

“They’re not going to correct the reader,” Rosenthal said. “They don’t quiz them on comprehension. They don’t stop them midway through a sentence and correct their pronunciation, or ask them to define a word.” 

However, just because they are an animal doesn’t mean they aren’t attuned to what is going on.

”If you have a pet, or have ever encountered a pet and you’ve talked to that pet, you know that they listen,” she said. “So, you still get that feedback.”

Participants Hannah and Nathan get to read to therapy dog Sawyer over Zoom.
(Image courtesy of Becky Shaknovich from the Free Library of Philadelphia)

When the pandemic hit, Rosenthal was hoping to keep the program going.

“My focus was on all of these kids who are home and learning from home and are missing their socialization,” Rosenthal said. “They’re missing the extra opportunities. How can we provide them?”

She was inspired to work with other libraries to move PAWS programming online after watching a librarian in New Castle County, Delaware bring her own dog to virtual story times.

Debi Leonard is a part-time work-study program coordinator for the Free Library of Philadelphia. She also volunteers as a PAWS reader with her six-year-old Schnauzer beagle mix, Bodie, a couple of times a month. 

“It is super adorable,” Leonard said. “Even virtually, it’s really, really cute.”

Before the pandemic, Leonard and Bodie visited the Parkway Library once for an in-person reading time. Now, they only take part in online sessions. Bodie, Leonard said, is a perfect fit for the job.

“He was just an angel from the day we got him,” Leonard said. “He has always been such a good dog. He knows tricks for treats and the kids love it. Before they leave, after they read, I do a trick for treat with Bodie and they think that that’s just amazing.”

Schnauzer and beagle mix Bodie sits with owner Debi Leonard at an in-person PAWS for Reading session prior to the pandemic. (Image courtesy of Debi Leonard)

Even conducted over Zoom, readers still connect with the pets and enjoy practicing their reading skills, Shaknovich said.

“This program is really well thought-out and educational,” Shaknovich said. “It takes into account child development and education philosophies.”

Instead of meeting at a brick and mortar location, a Free Library employee now sets up a Zoom session with the therapy team, letting different readers into the Zoom session every 10 minutes or so. 

“Younger kids who aren’t as advanced in their reading skills, they can get through a book pretty quickly and be done with it and not have the attention to sit,” Rosenthal said. “Older kids who are reading a chapter book might use the full time and get through part of the chapters.”

If readers get stuck, Rosenthal’s volunteers are prepared. 

“Where you can see there’s a hesitation, the child is stuck on a word, and in those moments, the volunteer might ask their pet to help the child figure out what the word is,” Rosenthal said. “And we always try to connect through the therapy animals. So, if they’re struggling or don’t understand something, we usually have them ask the pet and engage that way and, you know, interpret.”

Shaknovich said the important thing is the reader can hone their skills in a welcoming environment. 

“We want them to build their skills and experience for reading aloud when they’re confident,” she said.

The sessions themselves are short but sweet. Sometimes, siblings and other pets clamber into view, Leonard said. 

“[The reader] gets some pride out of the fact that they’re reading to a dog,” she said. “Like ‘Look at me! Look at what I’m doing.’ I think that they just feel special.”

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