This summer, the Central Bucks-based Roxy Reading celebrates its five-year anniversary of providing courthouse therapy dogs for children in Bucks County. It’s one of the many children-centered programs the nonprofit group has spearheaded over the last decade.
Volunteers bring in around 70 dogs to every session of the Bucks County Dependency Court, which hears child welfare cases one week a month. The situation can be distressing for children, many of whom have to testify or otherwise give statements often about upsetting or traumatic experiences.
That’s where the dogs come in — literally, into the room so the kids can interact with them before and during a hearing.
“It takes their mind off whatever has put them in that situation and gives them something else to focus on and calm them down,” explained Sharon Fleck, president of Roxy Reading. “The dogs are very intuitive. It’s amazing. They know which kids need them the most and that’s who they go to.”
The program is based, essentially, on the old adage that dogs are man’s best friend, and bolstered by recent studies and about the emotional connections dogs and humans often share, Fleck explained, and the science behind the calming effect canines can have on both kids and adults.
At the courthouse, that translates into children of all ages benefitting from the therapy dogs. “The value of it was apparent very quickly,” said Fleck. “Many kids have said the dogs have really made a difference. I had a 19-year-old tell me he was less nervous.”
She credits Judge Robert Mellon for supporting the program early on. That support allowed the program to flourish, and expand into work with the county’s District Attorney’s office. In these cases, the dogs and their owners are more or less on call for when a child is a victim of, or otherwise involved in, a violent crime.
Thankfully, said Fleck, the group has needed to participate only once or twice a year with the DA’s office. Meanwhile, however, the group stays busy with their flagship program, Literacy for All.
It began in 2005, when founder Diane Smith began bringing her dog Roxy to a learning support class at Gaiman Elementary School in Central Bucks School District. Children who were having trouble reading, or were nervous about doing so in class, strengthened their literacy skills by reading to the dogs instead of their peers or teachers.
It was less stressful to read to the animals, who also had a calming effect on the kids. The program was successful enough that Roxy Reading expanded throughout the school and district, and into other areas of the community.
The group also visits group homes like Pedia Manor in Pipersville, for children who are too physically fragile to live at home. And, Roxy Reading recently launched a pilot program at the Central Bucks high schools, where the dogs come to bereavement sessions held for students who have lost parents or siblings.
“The partnership has been really, really rewarding,” said Fleck. “Often, the kids aren’t excited to go to school, but many have said that when they got up and remembered the dogs were coming and it just really changed the course of their day, knowing the dogs would be there.”
For information, visit www.roxyreading.org.