SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Reading out loud is an important step in a child’s development.

But sounding out big words and stringing together sentences and paragraphs to a live audience? That can be downright terrifying, even to some adults.

The Salt Lake County Animal Shelter has devised a program to both help local children practice their reading skills while also providing a calming presence for the animals in between homes with Book Buddies, a virtual reading and companionship program that is open for registration for its second year of operation.

The program is not only extremely cute in concept, but also a win-win situation for both ends of the equation.

“Reading to an animal is an opportunity for them to hear a soothing rhythmic voice to also get one-on-one attention,” Salt Lake County Animal Services Communications Manager Callista Pearson explains to “When it comes to the children reading to the animals it’s a great opportunity for them to practice reading in a very non-judgmental environment where they can just work on their skills, do read at their pace.”

The shelter used to have a live in-person reading program, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was forced to adjust to having the kids read to the fuzzy critters over Zoom. Still, Book Buddies has continued to be a hit, drawing over 200 young readers to connect with an animal over the written word last year, according to Pearson.

Courtesy of Salt Lake County Animal Services

Book Buddies is also a chance for animals who are up for adoption to introduce themselves to a new family. After each short reading session, the shelter sends the child’s parents a photo and bio of the animal, when is sometimes shared by the excited mom or dad. A few readers and their parents have even come down to the shelter to meet their reading partner in person. Pearson is hopeful that the program can result in a few adoptions down the line.

For children who love animals but suffer from an allergy that would prevent them from having a pet, Book Buddies is also a great tool to create a connection without the bothersome effects of meeting in person.

“A few parents who have said that this program is great because their children are so allergic to animals, they can never actually come to the shelters. This gives them an opportunity to meet the shelter pets and interact with them from a safe, non-sneezy environment,” Pearson says.

Children with other special needs have also had a boost in confidence from reading with animals. Melissa Bair’s daughter, Emma, who is deaf, has made enormous strides in her ability to read and build literacy by practicing with the creatures at the shelter. It has made a big impact, Bair explains.

“She has been engaged with books throughout her life, but this program has seemed to encourage her to read more than to request having books read to her. She seems to enjoy both selecting books about animals to share with the ones in the county’s care and engaging with different animals each week,” Bair states.

“As a parent, I have appreciated observing her enthusiasm about reading as I watch and listen to her read to the animals,” she continues. “I have also enjoyed watching her emulate the dialectic-reading strategies that my husband and I use in reading to her.”

It is not just dogs and cats that enjoy being read to — although Pearson jokes that the cats seem to take advantage of their extra attention by showing off with playful wrestling among themselves.

Let us say your child is in the mood to read about the adventures of Peter Rabbit, wouldn’t it be fun to provide a bunny at the shelter with a fictional hero of the same species to admire?

Courtesy of Salt Lake County Animal Services

A group of guinea pigs would likely be fascinated to hear about the exploits of Stuart Little, a fellow rodent.

And if you’re reading Charlotte’s Web, the story of a friendship between a spider and a prize-winning pig, sharing the story with Bebop, a pig in the shelter, would be almost too cute to handle.

Of course, the dogs would probably find a Clifford the Big Red Dog story extremely captivating.

Naturally, the experience of having a little reader on the other end of a video call can be a bit foreign to some of the animals. Pearson remarks that the goats (yes, they have a few of them) in the shelter were particularly “inquisitive” about the technological setup.

Courtesy of Salt Lake County Animal Services

“He was so inquisitive about the phone, and the noise coming out of it that they kept getting like too close and we were having to like, back him up,” Pearson laughs. “You know goats try to nibble on anything, so we were making sure that they didn’t eat the phone. That was pretty funny.”