Gavin Vineyard gave up a good game of dodgeball for a chance to read.
The young Grantsdale School sports enthusiast didn’t even bat an eye when he made his choice last Wednesday afternoon. He did it for the dogs.
Vineyard was one of a group of Keystone to Discovery After School Program young people who traveled to the Bitter Root Humane Association in Hamilton, MT to spend time reading a story to the dogs waiting inside.
“I really like to read to them,” Vineyard said. “It feels like a nice thing to do. They always seem to calm down after you start reading.”
Sitting atop an upturned plastic bucket, the third-grader’s eyes never strayed from the paperback copy of Sharon Creech’s “Heartbeat.”
“Run run run. That’s what 12-year-old Annie loves to do. When she’s barefoot and running, she can hear her heart beating …”
Inside the kennel, a shar-pei-cross named Kira kept a close eye on the young boy while curled up on its bed in the corner.
“I do think she likes this story,” Vineyard said, with a smile.
This is the third year that youngsters from the program have spent an afternoon a week reading to the shelter’s dogs and cats that are waiting for their own forever homes.
Keystone program director Ria Overholt said the animals aren’t the only ones who benefit.
“We’ve seen that the sound of their voices is soothing for the dogs and cats,” Overholt said. “It is relaxing to the dogs to hear those calm and steady voices.”
Overholt has heard from the young readers’ parents, too.
Some have told her that reading has taken on a new meaning for their children after the program began.
“Dogs are a totally non-judgmental audience to read to,” Overholt said. “We’ve found that it does help them build their reading skills and they have fun doing it.”
Down at the end of the runway, seventh-grader Grace Kravik read her story to a kennel filled with a mother and whole passel of puppies.
Kravik stopped for a minute to watch the puppies play, and then she smiled.
“I love being around these dogs,” Kravik said. “I always get a good feeling from it because I know this will help them. It’s also really helped me with my reading. That’s a good thing too.”
Overholt offers youngsters enrolled in the afterschool program a choice on Wednesdays of which activities they’d like to try. This week there was a dodgeball tournament or reading.
“Many of them come back here week after week,” she said. “It’s their choice. This is how they want to spend their time.”
The shelter’s manager, Eve Burnsides, said the program is good for everyone.
“The kids enjoy it and the dogs really enjoy it,” she said. “Yesterday they had just finished eating when the kids showed up. They got to digest their meal to the sound of stories being read to them in nice, calm, reassuring voices.”
The visit to the shelter can be an eye-opener for some youngsters, Burnsides said.
“It helps the kids realize that animals react and have feelings too,” she said. “They see that firsthand. This is good for everyone all the way around.”
Sixth-grader Brayden Rogers picked out a dog he’d never seen to read to Wednesday. The little Miniature Pinscher-cross named Shadow trembled at first as the room filled with booming barks.
Once quiet settled back on the shelter, it inched closer to Rogers as he read on in a steady tone.
As it came closer, the young boy pushed his finger through the wire to pet his new best friend.
“I just like him because he’s so cute,” Rogers said. “We have three little dogs at home that I just love. It was just the way he looked at me when I first came in.
“It was like he was saying, ‘Read to me. Please read to me. I want a friend,’ ” he said, with a smile. “Every week I come home from here and ask my mom if I can take one home. Every week she tells me no, we have too many already.”
That’s the challenge that everyone involved with this program faces, Overholt said.
“We all want to take one home with us every time we come here,” she said.