Baxter the poodle helps Portland children gain reading confidence

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PORTLAND — The more comfortable a child is with reading, especially aloud, the better their overall literacy skills become.

That’s one reason the Riverton branch of the Portland Public Library has introduced a new reading dog program.

Twice a month kids at the library can spend time reading aloud to Baxter, a 2-year-old standard poodle owned by Kevin Holmes of Standish.

“Becoming a proficient reader involves lots of practice, and Baxter is a friendly, non-judgmental listener for kids to practice reading aloud,” said Emily Levine, director of development and external relations at the Portland Public Library.

“This is especially important for reluctant readers or readers who may struggle a little as they don’t have to worry about whether or not they are getting all the words right,” Levine said. “The more comfortable a child is with reading, the more they are likely to build enjoyment that leads to further reading. Plus, it’s a novelty for some kids who don’t have dogs in their (own) homes.”

The Riverton branch began offering reading sessions with Baxter this summer, and Levine said he “has already developed a loyal following. Baxter is very mellow and calm and loves kids. He’s perfect for the job.”

Levine said kids can sign up for  10-minute reading sessions with Baxter. Most of the available slots are already filled prior to his scheduled visits on Monday afternoons.

“Occasionally we have last-minute openings, but they are always filled by patrons who are browsing in the library,” she said.

Holmes got Baxter specifically to train him as a therapy dog. In addition to visits to the Riverton library, Baxter and Holmes also offer reading sessions at the Falmouth Memorial Library.

“Baxter … loves to listen to a story. He’s an excellent and fun audience for any reader who would like a chance to read with him,” according to the Falmouth library’s website. “He’s a very sweet dog, who loves meeting children and hearing stories and we hope you’ll bring your little ones to spend some time with him.”

Holmes said the “benefit of reading to a dog is different for different children, but when the kids read to Baxter there is no judgment based on their reading level or skill.”

He said reading aloud to Baxter also gives kids encouragement and confidence in terms of their reading and “Baxter loves it and enjoys meeting kids.”

In addition to giving kids a chance to practice their reading skills, Holmes said his goal is to give youngsters a chance to interact with a purebred poodle, a breed he believes is well suited to be a family pet.

Holmes said kids especially like it when Baxter’s ears perk up because he’s heard a word he knows, like “run,” “ball,” or “out.” Holmes said Baxter actually has a pretty big vocabulary of words he understands.

He would like to bring Baxter to even more local libraries, but Holmes said some libraries he’s contacted about starting reading sessions with his dog are reluctant.

Holmes said Baxter is a certified therapy dog and is one of the youngest dogs the Alliance of Therapy Dogs has ever passed, at least in Maine.

Baxter has been through a series of obedience classes, as well as a variety of training sessions at facilities from nursing homes to hospitals, according to Holmes.

“I really wish more people would take advantage” of the opportunity to read to Baxter, Holmes said. “The kids (he’s met so far) have become really attached.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

A young patron at the Riverton branch of the Portland Public Library reads to Baxter while the dog’s owner, Kevin Holmes, looks on.