“Hello Buddy,” says a woman in the green “Volunteer” shirt. She sets up her chair, pulls out a book and begins to read out loud in her gentle, soothing voice.
“If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.”
Inside her chain-link kennel on a Wednesday afternoon, Buddy, a brindle pit bull mix cowers in the corner with his head held low.
After a few more minutes of reading, Buddy seems to relax for a moment and cocks his head towards Sandy, ears perked. For a moment the two engage in a slight connection.
Hundreds of dogs pass through the doors of this branch of the American Society for The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) who are rescued by the police in animal abuse cases. The society hopes to get all of their rescues adopted into loving homes, but many come in with so much trauma that they cannot stand to be near humans.
This is where the volunteers come into play.
Volunteers come in and read to these dogs in 20 or 30-minute sessions through the fences of their kennels.
Victoria Wells, the senior manager of behavior and training at the society says the goal is to get the dogs comfortable with the pre-adoption process. The dogs need to get used to seeing people come near, walk by, and handle them. They call this step in the adoption process “hands-off socialization.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter what volunteers choose to read to them,” says Sandy, “as long as it’s in a calm and even voice. Sandy just happened to choose her favorite book, James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Wells started the program after she has spent several years playing guitar for the recovering dogs. The response was incredible as toughened and frightened creatures slowly responded to her voice and became more acclimated to a human presence. “Not everyone knew how to [play guitar], and I wanted to come up with something that anyone could do,” says Wells.
Ms. Wells says that the reading definitely makes a difference in the dogs’ behaviors although the exact benefits are hard to measure due to the full range of behavioral therapy and training that they receive.
She and other volunteers claim that you can tell that the dogs are making a little progress with each reading session. In the beginning of the sessions, the dogs may be cowering in the corner of their kennel, but after a while, they seem to gain an interest and relax and some even wag their tails in delight with the loving attention they are getting.
The society claims that their reading socialization program could be the first in the U.S. in which dogs who have been traumatized are healed by reading volunteers, although other similar programs have since sprung up, and there are a number of programs already in place in which children and adults who are learning to read will read out loud to dogs in libraries or shelters for mutual benefits.
Buddy had been found several months prior lying in an abandoned lot and seemed to be unable to stand. The rescuers thought has was dying, but after veterinary tests and examinations, they realized that he was just so frightened that he could not move.
Nobody knows anything else about Buddy’s back story, but several of the other dogs at the Animal Recovery Center have been victims of starvation, beatings, stabbings, or shootings. Most of the dogs make great candidates for the reading program.