One of my favorite after-school activities as a kid was visiting our local animal shelter. I'd plop myself down in front of one cage or another, wishing with all my heart that this would be the day I could adopt a pet of my own. I loved hanging out with the animals so much that as soon as I was old enough, I started volunteering at the shelter.
The Humane Society of Missouri is getting kids started volunteering early, too, with an educational program that invites them to read to dogs waiting to be adopted. Called the "Shelter Buddies Reading Program," it helps kids improve their reading skills and learn about animal care, while also helping rescued pups become less anxious and fearful, thereby increasing their chances of being adopted.
The program was tested out at the shelter's Kids for Critters Camp last summer, and was such a success that training sessions are now held year round. "We saw an awakening in the shelter dogs and how they really responded to the children," program director JoEllyn Klepacki says. "We knew that we were really onto something here."
To become a reader, kids ages 6 through 15 must attend a 90-minute training session. Along with learning how to read dogs' body language and pick up on common stress signals, the kids perform a visualization exercise where they're asked to close their eyes and imagine that they're one of the dogs in the shelter. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? How do you feel?
"We're hoping that if they can look at things from a shelter dog's perspective, they can apply that thinking and that empathy to other animals that they might come across," Klepacki says.
The program is currently only offered at the Humane Society's headquarters, but it will soon be offered at all three of its locations. Klepacki says the positive effects it's having on the shelter are already apparent—timid dogs are approaching the front of their cages more often, and high-energy dogs are starting to develop calmer demeanors.
"[The program] literally has a calming effect over the whole dog wing," Klepacki says. "Even dogs who can't see the children who are reading, they're listening, they're at the cage front and their ears are perked."
While the numbers aren't in on this yet, the Humane Society hopes to soon be able to say that the average length of stay for their shelter dogs has decreased as a result of this program.
"It would be a dream come true for us if any shelter across America wanted to implement this program or something similar," Klepacki says. "We're happy to share what we have with them and hope that it can help dogs everywhere."
Gillian Nigro is an Editorial Assistant for Parents.com. Follow her on Instagram for pictures of cats and one particularly posh French bulldog.