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.”
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.”
Photography courtesy of Intermountain Therapy Animals/Daphne Wilcox