By Charity Corkey
Eight-year-old Gus stretched out on the floor of the Lovettsville library, and his large eyes seemed to be closely following the adventures of the boy detective Encyclopedia Brown. He sat for more than an hour as children read him stories. Gus is a Saint Bernard, so it's hard to know what he took away from the experience. But for the children who participated in the Saturday afternoon session, the benefits were tangible. The children are enrolled in a program called Paws to Read, which was introduced at the Purcellville library last summer and has since moved to the Lovettsville branch. The program aims to promote the self-confidence of young readers by having them practice the skill in front of a friendly, nonjudgmental dog, said Beth Weisman, media officer for the Loudoun County library system. Paws to Read is associated with Paws4People, a nationwide organization that trains dogs for volunteer therapy services. Two or three trained therapy dogs, each accompanied by a handler, attend a typical reading session. Children must register for the free events, then wait their turn for some quiet, face-to-face time in the reading room with a furry companion. They read passages ranging from a few pages to a chapter. "I liked reading him the pool part" of a book about a beaver, 5-year-old Norah Doherty of Ashburn said of her time with Gus. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to wait an hour for the chance to read a story to Annie, the other therapy dog at the library that day. Norah, a preschooler and an early reader, was one of about 20 children who registered for the session. Her mother, Wendy Doherty, said she hopes Paws to Read will encourage her daughter to continue improving her reading. Suzanne Rupp of Lovettsville enrolled her 7-year-old son, Tommy, for the same reason. It seems to be working, she said, because Tommy has begun reading to his dogs at home. All the dogs in the program have undergone lengthy training. Suzanne Zimmerman of Lovettsville, who is Annie's handler and a certified educational assistant with the Paws4People Foundation, said Annie began training for the reading sessions when she was a year old. She started with basic dog obedience classes and progressed into more advanced lessons in socializing. "Everywhere I go, I would take her with me," Zimmerman said. "We would walk at shopping malls, so she could learn the noises that come with different environments." Zimmerman got her share of training, too, as she learned to predict how her dog would behave in different situations. In all, she and Annie went through about six months of preparation before they were allowed to work with children at the library and at Lovettsville Elementary School, where Zimmerman also volunteers. The hard work has paid off, Zimmerman said. "The only problem with the program is that kids don't want to stop reading," she said.