For animals like dogs and cats, animal shelters are often a sad and stressful environment to be in.
But a week ago at the Humane Society of Missouri, it was nothing but holiday cheer with books and treats at their annual "Deck the Howls" event.
"We're trying to comfort [the animals] and we're also trying to recondition them to come to the front of the kennel to greet, to feel comfortable around people," said JoEllyn Klepacki, the director of education at the Humane Society of Missouri.
All year round, kids take part in the organization's Shelter Buddies Reading Program, where they read books to dogs outside their kennels to help dogs reduce their anxiety.
And each year around the holidays, they invite kids in their community to take part in "Deck the Howls," an event where kids don their favorite pajamas and bring a little holiday cheer to the animals awaiting adoption by reading holiday stories to them by candlelight.
"We really wanted to find a way to invite children in our community to come into the shelter and to get involved, to connect with the animals, to see the shelter as a place of hope and healing and to know that they can make a difference in the lives of others," said Klepacki.
Nearly five years ago, staff at the Humane Society of Missouri came up with the idea of the program to help shelter dogs become more adoptable, but over the years, it's also helped kids grow their confidence reading in front of a nonjudgmental audience.
In order to join, kids attend one 90-minute training session before they're able to read to as many dogs at the shelter as they want. Surprisingly, many kids who join have never even stepped foot in a shelter.
"A lot of these kids have never really thought about the fact that shelters exist full of animals that are homeless," said Klepacki. "And when they come in and they see them and they meet them, they connect with them. It develops that empathy that they have and inspires them to want to do more to help."
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Have you heard about our Shelter Buddies Reading Program? Through this program, Kind Kids age 6-15 read to our shelter dogs from their favorite books or from our library of animal-themed titles. Not only does this bring comfort to our shelter dogs, it's a great way to nurture empathy in children. Learn more at hsmo.org/shelterbuddies 📚 🐶
As a result of the program, the Humane Society of Missouri has reduced the average length of stay for their shelter dogs by six days and by helping them get more comfortable around people.
"We've had children actually adopt animals as a result of participating in this program. They connect with the animals that they're visiting," said Klepacki.
The program has become so successful they've also expanded the event by organizing other shelters to take part in "Deck the Howls" as a launching pad to start their own reading programs.
This year, the number of shelters nearly doubled in size with over three dozen across the country taking part in the literary holiday event happening all season long. And now, staff at the Humane Society like Klepacki just want others to make a difference and help more shelter animals get adopted.
"It helps spread awareness. It helps get families involved," said Klepacki. "If they would just reach out to their local shelter wherever they are and ask if they have a reading program or if there's anything they can do to get involved, that's gonna make a difference and it's going to help more shelter animals across the nation. And that's what we care about."