Sandi Martin, RN, always wanted a dog. But as manager of a Salt Lake City hospital’s intensivecare burn unit, she had a demanding job with unpredictable hours. Plus, during her free time, she gave talks at professional meetings on critical care and ethics. It was the job or a dog.
Martin chose a dog.
In 1999, she resigned from her job at the hospital and took a position with a community outreach program with a less stressful work schedule. She cut back on her presentations and bought a house. Then she started to look for a dog.
On one of her weekend outings, she went to the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter. She hadn’t intended to adopt a puppy, but when she saw a playful little Portuguese Water Dog with big feet, a big head and a tail that bent over her back, Martin fell in love. The pup, who had been at the shelter for 10 days, was scheduled to be euthanized the following Monday. Martin took her home and named her Olivia.
A little while after Olivia came into her life, Martin was talking with Kathy Klotz, the director of Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA), which had developed programs that brought dogs into therapeutic settings. At the hospital, Martin had seen firsthand how children with burns responded in a positive way to the ITA dogs.
In Martin’s experience, many of these children lacked focus, didn’t look forward to doing any of the tasks they were given and generally had low self-esteem across the board. But when they interacted with therapy animals, they seemed to develop more confidence in themselves. They forgot their limitations. Their focus improved, and they became more interested and involved in what they were asked to do.
Thinking about the remarkable turnarounds the dogs facilitated, the proverbial light bulb went off in Martin’s head. Could dogs do the same for children who had trouble reading? The next day, she called Klotz and arranged to meet up so she could run her idea past her.
Over coffee, Martin explained what she wanted to do: A lot of children with reading problems weren’t performing up to their grade level because they lacked confidence and self-esteem. Maybe letting them interact with a dog while they were reading would help them in the same way dogs were helping burn victims.
Their next step was to talk to the city library’s staff. Klotz says they thought the idea was “wacko,” but they listened. Nothing like it had ever been done. What if it worked? What if bringing dogs into the library and having them listen to children read aloud would make them more confident? It didn’t take long to find out.
Dog Day Afternoons
In November 1999, Martin and Klotz got permission to start a “Dog Day Afternoons.” It began with six children and six animals: five dogs (Olivia among them) and one cat. One of the first children who agreed to sit down with Olivia was a seven-year-old boy. Before he started, he looked at his shoes and in a quiet voice said, “I don’t read very well.”
“That’s okay,” Martin told him. “Olivia doesn’t either, but she loves to listen.”
Reluctantly, the boy began reading softly, turning to Olivia after every word. The next week, he brought his “Spot” book with him and read it to Olivia, pronouncing half the words correctly, a big improvement from the previous week. On the fourth week, he rushed into the library and in a loud voice announced, “Olivia, program at the local library called I’ve got a really cool book to read to you.”
Other children had equally remarkable experiences. A young girl who didn’t want to take part in the program but was persuaded to do so by her grandmother improved so much that a few years later, she won her school’s essay contest. The title of her essay was “Why Would You Want to Read to a Dog?”
There were other success stories. A sixth-grade boy who had recently come from Bosnia walked into the room with his hands behind his back. Though he wouldn’t come up to the dogs, he asked questions. Martin asked him if he would like to pet one of the dogs.