RACINE — Reading aloud can be nerve-wracking for even the most literate of people.

But it can be especially intimidating for young readers, particularly shy kids.

To help ease these students through the process, the Racine Public Library teamed up 10 years ago with a pack of four-legged listeners to provide a comforting, non-judgmental space for reading.

Called Ruff Readers, the program pairs therapy animals with elementary school children for private reading sessions.

The cast of listeners includes beagle mixes Epstein and Hailo; Kirby, the cocker spaniel; Winston and Bentley, the Labra-doodles; a black lab who was rescued following Hurricane Katrina; a German shepherd; four golden retrievers; and even Racine’s well-known therapy cat, Gracie.

The program typically has been popular, but a lull in participation for this fall session has the library reminding area parents of the program’s existence and urging them to sign up their animal-loving readers.

The sessions can be booked between 4 and 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The fall session runs through Nov. 30.

Although a drop-in session can be available at times, the library encourages parents to reserve a time slot as therapy pets and their handlers don’t always head down to the library if they don’t have at least one appointment booked for that afternoon.

Children are encouraged to bring their favorite reading material or ask a librarian for a recommended selection.

The program is offered during three 12-week sessions over the course of the year. The winter/spring session will start up in February and run through April; the summer session will start in early June; and the next fall session will start around Labor Day.

A leg up

Studies have shown that children find reading to an animal less intimidating than reading to adults or peers.

Youth Services Librarian Rachel Zuffa has seen firsthand the positive effect the program can have on struggling readers.

“There was this young girl who just didn’t want anyone to come into (the room while she was reading to one of the animals) and I have seen over the course of her coming for a couple of years just confidence — complete confidence and comfort. She definitely grew with the program,” Zuffa said.

Before coming to work full time at the library, Zuffa was the school librarian at McKinley Middle School and she recalls students talking about what a help Ruff Readers was to them when they were little.

“They talked about how much of a comfort it was for them just to have someone who was not going to make fun of how they spoke,” she said.

Perks

Participation in the free program also comes with a few extra perks for the pets and the kids.

Havahart Pets donates the treats for the program, and Racine Veterinary Hospital provides pet safety coloring books and draw-string backpacks for readers after their first session. If the kids color in one of the pages and bring it back, they get a gift certificate for a free Wendy’s Frosty or a scoop of frozen custard from Culver’s.

After children have completed three sessions, they get their photo taken with their favorite animal and a postcard with that photo is sent to them and their school librarian. After their sixth appointment, a book is donated to the library in their name.

Zuffa has also made collectible buttons featuring some of the therapy animals that she hands out to participants.

“We want to do as much as we can for the kids that come in here to make it a positive experience,” Zuffa said.

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