In 2005, Canine Assisted Reading Education (CARE) was born in North Carolina’s Moore County, thanks to the combined efforts of Rebecca Vassallo, MD, and Linda Hubbard, a volunteer coordinator for the Moore County school system. Vassallo brought Luther, her certified rescue dog, into the classroom. As she recalls, “Luther sat with the children who had difficulty reading. The trial period worked so well that the county decided to expand the program.” Vassallo adds that Luther has his own website (learnwithluther.com), so the children can contact him outside the classroom. Another volunteer, Kelly Stevens, and her chocolate Lab, Gunner, visit more than half a dozen children every week. Stevens, who’s also known as the “Pinehurst Pet Nanny,” doesn’t mind if Gunner falls asleep. “The children continue to read to him,” she says.
Reading dogs spread northward in 2005 when a Brooklyn therapy program known as the Good Dog Foundation added the READ program to its offerings, using dogs to help at-risk children improve their reading skills. “We extended our pet program to libraries and school systems in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut,” says Leslye Lynford, director of development. “In Manhattan, sometimes as many as 19 children line up at 7:30 every morning because they want to read to the dogs.”
Under Rachel McPherson’s leadership, the Good Dog Foundation helped change New York state law to allow therapy dogs into organizations and schools. “It’s a win–win situation,” she says. “Reading levels have tripled. Every child walks down the school hall and knows the freedom of reading with these ‘cool’ dogs. It brings self-esteem in a secure environment where there are no threats.”
McPherson estimates that the program operates in 15 elementary schools as well as in the New York public libraries. “The Manhattan library offers READ on Saturdays,” she says. “We also work closely with children from [troubled] homes. They experience a comfortable, caring world with us.” McPherson hopes to expand the program. “It’s a dream—I hope to see it in upper grades and in future adult programs. We have over 375 teams, trained and certified to meet the requirements.”
The dogs who participate in the Good Dog Foundation’s program, like their compatriots across the country, go through a training course. They must have basic obedience skills, be in good health, be able to go into elevators and display a sound temperament. “We give support and have the facilities to train the dogs through certified trainers,” McPherson explains. “The trainers then follow through by deciding, planning and certifying all school visits.” More than 15,000 dogs and 13,000 handlers are registered as pet-assisted therapy teams, and the foundation now makes more than 77,000 visits to several groups and schools each year. The Good Dog Foundation has won awards from the ASPCA and the Red Cross for its therapy dog services.
“We base ourselves on the premise that good dogs are good medicine,” says McPherson, “and dogs will continue to help children become better readers for many years to come. Therapy animals consistently demonstrate that when we respect and care for other species, they have great gifts of connection, joy and healing to share with us, and we with them.”