Andon Shriver comes to the Mulvane Public Library every Monday and Tuesday. On this afternoon, he’s reading a poem book from the "Bad Kitty" series.
"Meow, hello, what do we have here?" the third-grader reads aloud.
He stumbles over a word here and there, but his audience today – a 12-year old cocker spaniel named Barney – doesn’t seem to mind. He simply listens.
Barney is a picture-perfect cocker spaniel: tan, with well-groomed fur and big brown eyes that point in slightly different directions. He’s become a bit of a celebrity at the library; every first and third Monday of the month, visitors can find him in the back corner, sometimes on a bean bag chair, patiently listening to kids practice their reading.
And never far away is Barney’s owner, Dave Peebler.
“He was a rescue," Peebler says, "and by the paperwork I got from the Humane Society, I’m his third owner, which I cannot believe.”
Peebler is semi-retired; he taught middle school and high school for five years, but spent most of his career in sales.
He didn’t really plan on Barney being a helper at the library. It started several years ago with visits to a nursing home -- then called Vintage Place, now Homestead of Derby -- to see Peebler’s dad.
"With [Barney] doing what we do now was an accident, you know, because I was just taking him to visit my dad at Vintage Place and he got along well," Peebler says. "And Jeff, my older son, was at Derby Health and Rehab and had been at Vintage Place a few times. When he saw me there with Dad and Barney, he said, ‘Come on over here, I want you to see if it will work over here.’
"Seven and a half years later, here we still are."
Now, he and Barney go to three care homes a week to visit residents.
“It’s a joke for me that when we walk into those places, you’ll always hear them yell out, ‘Here’s Barney!’" Peebler says with a laugh. "It’s not, ‘Here’s Dave.’ That’s OK.”
Barney’s role in the library is particularly special. Kids can sit with him and work on their reading skills without any pressure or judgment.
One little boy "has never missed us," Peebler says. "He’s always here. I think he knows we’re coming."
Mulvane isn’t the only library to hold these kinds of "storytimes," says Mulvane Public Library director Shanna Smith.
"I guess libraries are always … searching for things to engage children with reading," she says. "I feel like every library I visit, they’re always, ‘What can we do, what can we do?’"
Reading scores have roughly been stagnant in Kansas for the past decade, according to what’s known as the “nation’s report card.” The latest National Assessment of Education Progress shows about 30 percent of the state’s fourth graders scored at a proficient level in reading. More than half were at or below basic reading levels.
Smith says literacy skills can start developing as early as infancy. Libraries are offering programming aimed at younger and younger readers, even targeting programs to expectant mothers.
"Really, it begins as a baby," she says. "I mean, you bring your day-old child home, you read to them. That's when it should start.
"I mean, they may not be absorbing everything, but just language is so important that, you know, the earlier the better."
A recent study from Tufts University found that second graders who read to dogs develop better skills, as well as better attitudes toward reading — something Smith says is another goal of the “Read with Barney” program.
"I want kids to have really positive memories about their library," she says. "I want them to have positive memories linked with them reading books and learning to read because that's when you're able to even pass that love reading on to your child.
"So I hope that when families bring their children to the Read with Barney [program], it's a non-stressful, positive memory that these kids are linking with their time here."
And even though Barney is the main attraction, Peebler, his owner, plays a role that’s just as important – even if he's quick to point out that his dog does all the hard work. But as Barney listens quietly, Peebler is listening right along, offering the readers corrections if needed, encouraging them along the way.