“Rain was falling when we reached the Mississippi.”
Upon hearing the words, Violet, a sometimes tense two-year-old pit bull, relaxed on her blanket and closed her eyes.
These words were not coming from a longtime owner; they were passages from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, read by ASPCA volunteer Ricky Gitt of Manhattan. Gitt is one of 116 volunteers who read to dogs like Violet as part of the ASPCA Storytelling Program, an initiative designed specifically to socialize victimized dogs brought in through the ASPCA’s partnership with the NYPD. Most of them aren’t even ready to be walked by volunteers.
“These dogs often come in extremely shy and un-socialized. This helps them become accustomed to new people and experiences,” says Kris Lindsay, Technical Operations Manager for the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center, or ARC, where more than 1,500 victims of animal cruelty have been treated since January 2014. “A soothing voice and presence can calm agitated or fearful dogs, which helps them more easily transition to our Adoption Center and eventually find homes.”
For Violet, the transition has not been easy. She arrived at the ASPCA in late April so paralyzed with fear that she couldn’t even stand up. “She was an extreme case,” says Dr. Lindsay Thorson, the veterinarian managing Violet’s care. She adds that Violet is now comfortable with medical and routine handling, and loves being read to.
“These dogs come from a variety of circumstances, with varying severities of behavior issues,” says Victoria Wells, Senior Manager of Behavior and Training. “But you can see the benefits of storytelling in their body language.” In another vestibule, an emaciated dog wags its tail as volunteer Deborah Lancman sits down and begins to read. “Some dogs are exceedingly fearful, and the reading relaxes them,” Deborah says. “They hear a normal voice that’s not threatening or nasty and don’t feel fear.”
Do these dogs prefer thrillers to classics? The subject matter doesn’t make a difference—at least not to the dogs. “They don’t seem to care about that,” says Ricky, an interior designer who started volunteering at the ASPCA two years ago after his own dog passed away. “I used to read them books or stories about animals, but now I bring whatever I’m reading at the moment.”
Hildy Benick of Manhattan, an ASPCA volunteer for nearly five years, has devoted more than 80 hours reading to dogs. On one Monday afternoon, she started with her newspaper and then switched to Jane Eyre. “I think they get a lot out of it,” she says. “You come in and they start barking; then they get quiet and lie down.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is not to build canine literacy, but to ready these animals for eventual adoption. “The storytellers are their first exposure to people other than staff,” explains Victoria. “The reading prepares them for meeting new people and helps them get comfortable.”
Since the program launched in April 2014, over 1,700 hours have been spent reading to these dogs. The volunteers hope that sharing good stories with the animals will lead to good stories about the dogs themselves. “These animals have been dealt a bad blow,” says Hildy, who has witnessed many cruelty victims transform into loving and trusting pets. “They just want to be taken care of. I’m thankful we can help them this way.”
That’s a happy ending every story can use.