Six years ago, Maggie Dobbins was a 13-year-old looking for a project for her Girl Scout service award.
She considered her resources and thought about her options and interests.
Maggie had her pet dog, a Great Pyrenees named Butter. Three years earlier, Maggie had trained Butter to earn a Canine Good Citizenship designation from the American Kennel Club. The following year, the Maggie and Butter team became certified through Therapy Dogs International, passing a series of 15 obedience and temperament criteria. With these qualifications, they visited rehabilitation centers and nursing homes.
Nice, but Maggie still had that Girl Scout project to develop.
Then, the lightbulb moment. She came up with the idea of having Butter, as an ever-patient therapy dog, listen to kids read aloud as they worked through pages of a book without interference from an adult.
With that brainstorm, the Dog Tales program was born.
“I wanted kids to learn to read without anyone correcting them,” says Maggie, now 18. “When I was a kid, I hated anyone correcting me. I hated people telling me ‘you’re wrong, do it again.’
“This was so perfect. I thought, ‘I tell Butter all my secrets. Why not have kids read to her instead?’ Butter is not going to yell at them. She is not going to correct them. She’s not going to do anything when they make a mistake.”
Scheduled the first Sunday of the month at Sewickley Public Library, Dog Tales grew to include four teams of dogs. Kids can sign up for 15-minute slots. They bring their books, choose a dog, and “read and read and read.”
Butter has loved the attention from her young charges, Maggie says.
The program caught on, attracting parents and kids from the area and as far as Monroeville, Greensburg, and Ligonier. Other therapy dog teams became interested in participating, too. Teachers came to observe, some bringing their own kids to participate.
There are many benefits from the Dog Tales program. Kids can relax in a non-judgmental environment when reading to a dog. Kids with reading difficulties often have self-esteem issues from reading in front of a class or teacher. Reading to a therapy dog while petting and stroking the animal gives kids a way to associate something pleasant with reading.
Maggie recently received her Girl Scout Gold Award for making an impact in her community through Dog Tales. It is the highest achievement a young woman can earn in Girl Scouts.
The Quaker High School graduate is off to college now, beginning her first semester at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland, but she leaves Dog Tales in good hands. The program she started six years ago will continue.
“That’s the best feeling in the world,” Maggie says, “knowing there are so many who are still going to be impacted by my work.”