Reading is indeed fundamental, but for many, acquiring the skill is daunting. Fortunately, thanks to some innovative programs and cooperative dogs, the challenge is getting easier to meet. Across the nation, dogs are lending their ears, and thousands of children who need extra help with reading and interpersonal communication couldn’t be happier.
Imagine this scene, described by Brooklyn’s Good Dog Foundation founder and executive director, Rachel McPherson: “For each session, the dog and the child-tutor settle down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor in a corner of the school media center or in the library. Either the dog picks out a book or the child selects a picture book, brings it to the dog, holds it flat and begins to read.”
Though the children believe they are teaching dogs to read, in fact, with the dog as a comfortable, attentive audience (and an occasional gentle assist from the dog’s adult volunteer partner), they are actually teaching themselves. As far as the child is concerned, however, reading is about the dog, not about the child. No pressure. No embarrassment. No humiliation.
Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) was among the first to use “reading dogs” in the classroom. Launched in November 1999 by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, the program was introduced in a Salt Lake City library (where it continues to be available to both children and adults), and a year later, successfully moved into the school system. READ dogs are trained, registered and certified therapy animals who serve as classroom reading tutors, assisting children with their quiet presence and helping them develop a love of reading. Currently, 1,300 therapy teams are working their magic in schools and libraries. “We were the first to put a model around the idea, to improve reading and communication skills and to build the love of books among children that will last forever. It is priceless to see the eager faces of enthusiasm of young children reading to their therapy dogs,” says Kathy Klotz, READ’s executive director.
Within a year, READ enlisted another set of tails in Durham County, N.C., where psychologist Amy Parsons, a volunteer with Helping Paws International, collaborated with Intermountain to create a therapy assistance dog program known as Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety (BARKS). By 2002, the program had accepted and trained several breeds of dogs, and cofounder Jeani Gray says the waiting list of schools interested in the program is long. BARKS dogs act as partners in 30-minute weekly reading sessions with elementary school children—the children are proud to be chosen to teach a certified pooch to read. Helping Paws International has also been successful in working with autistic children in North Carolina, and now has a total of 115 teams operating in Florida, Ohio, Texas and New Zealand.
Sit Stay Read!, founded by MaryEllen Schneider and Sarah Murphy, blew into Chicago schools in 2003. “Sarah had the vision,” says Schneider, who managed a dog training school, “and I had the operational tools. Our teachers, reading specialists and literacy experts put the program together. Our focus is on reading fluency with second- and third-graders of low-income communities. Currently, there is one volunteer team to every four children. Even the teachers spend their free time as program volunteers.”
Sit Stay Read! has 40 certified teams and 90 volunteers. The progress the children make is amazing, according to Schneider, who notes that the latest fluency test results indicate reading acceleration to 24 words per minute, versus nine words per minute for those not involved with the program. Attendance has also improved, as has classroom demeanor. “The children are so excited to read to the dog. Even disruptive boys have learned to sit and pet the dog while reading.”
Currently, the Sit Stay Read! program is used in four schools, and 38 more are on the waiting list; the group also hopes to add components for fourth- and fifth-graders. “We need volunteers,” says Schneider, “even those who don’t have a dog.” Schneider, confident about the program’s future, says she sees “successful fluency as a continuous process.”