The goal of Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ), launched in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1999 as part of Intermountain Therapy Animals, is to improve children’s literacy skills with the mentoring help of certified therapy teams. Its reach has spread through library programs across the U.S. and Canada and internationally, with other therapy groups following suit.
“Doctors told the parents of an 11-year-old autistic son that he would never read… so quit trying to teach him,” says Suzanne Vening, an organic farmer in Jackson, Mississippi. “The doctor didn’t count on Adam, my Australian shepherd.” Abused and abandoned before being adopted by Vening, she had trained him for therapy work.
Vening knew nothing about autistic or learning-disabled children, but she knew Adam could work miracles. The boy made eye contact with Adam during his library visit and read a few words. His parents were overjoyed as his reading continued to improve. “It’s hard to include children with special needs in many family activities,” Vening says. “A library is a place the whole family can enjoy.”
She advises, “Designate a safe corner where a child can escape if feeling overwhelmed. After entering the room, handlers should sit on the floor with the dog lying beside them. A standing dog can cause too much excitement. It’s important to trust that your therapy dog will know how to approach a child that’s afraid, has tremors or can’t sit up or sit still.”
“An animal’s heartbeat seems to call to kids,” observes Rachael Barrera, a children’s librarian at Brook Hollow Public Library, in San Antonio, Texas. “Dogs have come here once a week for more than a year. Now older kids that are comfortable with the reading program are showing younger ones how to choose a book.”
At California’s Benicia Public Library, kids read to Honey, a friendly brown dog, on Wednesday afternoons. Sheila Jordan, managing editor and owner of Booklandia, founded in Bend, Oregon, says her 8-year-old, Chase, found it difficult to concentrate because of ADHD (attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder). “The Tales and Tails program was a big help. All summer, we went every week and chose books he said the dog would love.” Jordan’s reward was a more focused child; Chase’s reward was a dog of his own last fall.
North Carolina’s Charlotte Mecklenburg Library offers 14,000 free programs a year throughout its 20 locations, including Paws to Read. Librarian Cathy Cartledge, reading program coordinator for the Morrison Regional branch, shares this story from Jaylee’s mom, Jill.
“Jaylee was tutored in reading for a year. After she also began reading to Zoey, a great Pyrenees, or Hunter, a golden retriever, I saw improvement in fluency, confidence and enjoyment. It worked miracles compared with the hours and money spent for tutoring,” her mom remarks.
The Mount Prospect Library, near Chicago, has an age requirement for its Tales to Tails program. “Rachael, 8, will hardly put a book down now,” says her mom, Nicole Sasanuma, a senior associate with Business Communications & Advocacy, in Northbrook, Illinois. “Her sister, Emi, 6, is anxious for her next birthday so she ‘can read to doggies,’ too.”
Reading programs aren’t limited to libraries or schools. Jean Maclean, of Lompoc, California, trains her two dogs in agility and rally skills. For a change of pace, they visit the Chumash Learning Center, in Santa Ynez, once a month. The Chumash people value education from both its elders and teachers outside the tribe. Maclean relates that Donny, age 11, was afraid of dogs until he met hers, after which his teachers saw his reading improve three levels in one semester.
Animals help kids relax and become teachers to the dogs. Researchers at the University of California, Davis have found that reading skills for kids that read to dogs during a 10-week literacy program improved by 12 percent. Children in the same program that didn’t do the same showed no improvement.
Dogs and other pets prove that reading out loud doesn’t have to be scary. All it takes is a good book and a good listener.
Connect with freelance writer Sandra Murphy at StLouisFreelanceWriter@mindspring.com.