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Can a dog help your child read?

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By Kim Boatman
 

Did you know that dogs across the country are teaching children to read? Reading assistance dog programs are popping up at libraries, schools and nonprofit organizations. Both organizers and participants say the literacy dogs are making a significant difference in the lives of children.

"Paws to Read really works," says Brittany Nethers, youth programs coordinator at the Orange County, Fla., Library System. "We even have a regular following of children and parents who attend the programs every month."

How Reading-to-dogs Programs Work
Dogs play a simple role in these literacy programs, but their importance shouldn't be discounted. They listen while children read aloud. "For our program, each child signs up for a 10-minute session during which they can read to the dog -- without fear of being judged or graded on their reading ability," explains Anne Heidemann, department head of the children's and tween's sections of the Canton, Mich., public library. "This program provides a relaxed environment in which the child feels comfortable and is able to improve his or her reading and communication skills. Since these dogs are trained and tested for safety, health, skills and temperament, they are unintimidating and allow children to read at their own pace."

Dogs With Listening Skills
The dog participants in these programs are usually either certified Canine Good Citizens (an American Kennel Club program) or are trained therapy dogs. For instance, the Orange County system has partnered with Be an Angel Therapy Dogs since 2005. "Be an Angel Dogs Ministry wanted to expand our therapy dog service to the community," explains June Feezel, co-founder of the organization. "We felt that a reading program with a calm, attentive therapy dog sitting with children who were a little reluctant to read in front of their class would help them gain confidence and realize that reading can be fun."

The dog participants enjoy children, the gentle petting and the low voice of the reading child, says Feezel. "First, they will sit up and listen, and then they eventually lay down and rest while the petting and low voices continue."

The program is so popular that 25 teams work in the Paws to Read program, visiting libraries, elementary schools and some programs for hearing and behavior-impaired children. "We have more than 60 venues we visit on a monthly basis, and some of the venues have multiple visits per month, so we are busy almost every day," says Feezel.

Children who participate receive cool stickers with a photo of "their" dog and a tagline saying they read a book to that dog today. The program offers rewards for frequent participants, including free books, certificates and T-shirts.

Helping Kids Who Struggle
Dog literacy programs work particularly well with students who otherwise struggle, say organizers. Domus, a Connecticut nonprofit that helps at-risk youth, relies on two therapy dogs to help literacy specialists in its Stamford, Conn., charter middle school, says Garland Walton of Domus. "Many kids who might otherwise be resistant to literacy instruction ask to read with the dogs and see it as a treat," says Walton. Developing the courage to read aloud -- and in front of peers -- is critical for classroom success, according to Walton.

How to Participate
Check with your local library system if you're interested in either having your dog listen to young readers or have your child read aloud to a calm dog. Therapy dog organizations are also an excellent starting point. In some cities, organizations such as the SPCA run programs.

"Having a special time set aside each month for reading to a therapy dog keeps the kids focused throughout the month on improving their literacy and anticipating their next visit to the library," says Nethers. "The smile on a child's face when it is his turn to read makes Paws to Read an invaluable program."

Kim Boatman is a journalist based in Northern California. She is also the managing editor of ExceptionalCanine.com. Boatman's work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals 

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