As children browsed stacks of books at Mid-Continent Public Library’s South Independence Branch, peering over the shelves and into the glass windows of the community room provided a glimpse of something unexpected: two canine guests. Sprawled out on blankets and surrounded by stories about fictional dogs like Biscuit and Clifford, Pomeranian Rico and Great Pyrenees Lilly waited for young readers to arrive as part of the Monday night program.
These elementary readers began hesitantly, stumbling over a few words, but soon leaned against their furry companions, reaching out to pet them between each turn of a page. Second grader Tristan Diedel looked into Lilly’s dark eyes and asked, “Does this dog like to listen?”
For her owner, Alice Sharp, the answer is clear. She said attentive Lilly, a therapy dog who frequently visits schools, hospices and nursing homes, comforts children who may be nervous about reading and gives them the gentle, often literal nudge of encouragement they need.
“They just enjoy being with her,” Sharp said. “She’s like a big stuffed animal for them.”
In fact, after Diedel flips through a picture book, he says he wishes he could read a 300-paged chapter book to Lilly.
To Natalia Rios, a second grader who recently moved to the Independence area from Argentina, the dogs represent familiarity. They remind Rios of the dog she had to leave behind. As she settles into a new school and learns the words of a second language, there’s one common refrain she repeats to Rico: “Woof, woof!”
After recounting the adventures of Biscuit to Rico, Natalia acknowledged that it was almost the same as reading in class or at home – with one major difference.
“It just made me more happy,” Natalia summed up. “The thing I love about the dogs and about this library is they make me more comfortable.”
This sense of contentment stands out as Risa Canseco-Groh’s main motivation behind training 10-year-old Rico as a therapy dog. Cancesco-Groh vividly remembers taking her childhood dog with her to school one day as part of show-and-tell. In that moment, she first realized the transformative impact dogs could have in the classroom.
Cancesco-Groh says she can’t imagine the anxiety that kids feel when asked to read aloud. However, when they sit with Rico, she notices it disappear. She hears hushed tones grow louder and more confident. She smiles – for a moment, a forgotten third party – as they laugh.
“They have this bright light that comes over them,” Cancesco-Groh described. “It’s nice to see people brought to life, whether they’re young or old.”