Reading goes to the dogs
Children's program builds self-esteem, reading ability
by Eric Leake, Las Vegan Sun <www.lasvegassun.com>,
February 28, 2003
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admits that her reading buddy Charlie is not always the perfect
"He's silly," she said. "When I'm reading he sometimes licks me
or steps on the book or stuff."
Alexandra, 7, meets with Charlie once a week at the Paseo Verde
Library for Reading with Rover. She and the 5-year-old golden
retriever sprawl across a red blanket in the reading room to put
nose and snout in a book.
The idea is to pair struggling readers with trained dogs for a
reading environment that is non-judgmental, fun and encouraging.
The students build self-esteem and practice reading.
The dogs get cuddle time and make new friends, handler Mary
On a Wednesday evening, Alexandra comes to meet Charlie with a
bundle of Junie B. Jones books in hand. She likes the books, she
says, because Junie's funny and yells a lot.
It is a weekly date that Alexandra looks forward to.
"I get to read to Charlie, and seeing him makes me happy," she
While Alexandra reads with Charlie and his handler in the
reading room, Alexandra's mother, Karyn, watches the brown-eyed
pair through a one-way window. To keep the environment
stress-free, only the child, dog and handler are allowed in the
reading room and the handler usually sits apart.
"She reads longer and obviously enjoys it more than the reading
she does with me or her sister," DePari said of her daughter,
who has been reading below second grade level.
DePari said Alexandra's reading seems to be improving. Whereas
her teacher only asks that she read 15 minutes a day, Alexandra
will read for a half-hour each time with Charlie.
"One day she was being kind of reluctant to come, and I told
her, 'Charlie is expecting you,' " DePari said. "I think she
feels an obligation to the dog, and it makes her feel
Alexandra said she has tried reading to the family's dog at
home, but it's not the same.
"He's not as good a listener. He always sleeps," she said.
Florica Hagendorn, who coordinates Reading with Rover for the
Henderson District Public Libraries, hopes for that kind of
chemistry when she personally pairs each child with a certified
A girl with vision problems was paired with a partially blind
dog. Another girl with allergens was paired with a poodle
because poodles don't shed.
"It's a perfect combination, these children with the animals,"
Hagendorn said. "I think when you put dogs and children
together, there's a certain magic."
Hagendorn said she first heard of a similar program years ago on
an Animal Planet cable television show. An animal-lover herself,
with two boxers at home, Hagendorn thought it was a perfect
She started Reading with Rover two years ago at the Las
Vegas-Clark County Library District. When she moved to the
Henderson district in August, she brought Rover with her.
Hagendorn said nearly 30 kids, ranging from second to fifth
grade, are in the program. They typically participate for two
six-week sessions, meeting with the dogs once a week. At the end
they are awarded a diploma.
Hagendorn, sitting at her desk in the children's department at
the Paseo Verde Library, is happy to talk about the merits of
the program. A "Dog Fancy" calendar stands beside her computer.
Snapshots of smiling kids with their "canine reading
specialists" are posted above.
"We want to make reading fun, and think by taking away the
stress, they're going to want to read more," Hagendorn says in a
classic librarian voice, steady and smooth.
"It's a self-esteem building program, it really is. Because of
that the kids are more inclined to read. They need a lot of
practice," she said. "And what better than the loving, relaxed
atmosphere of this program when a child's having trouble
Hagendorn said that once children feel more comfortable reading,
their improved self-esteem spills over to other areas. They
perform better in all academic areas and have greater social
skills. And, she said, by befriending a dog they learn to
The dogs and their handlers are all volunteers from the Canine
Therapists of Las Vegas. They include 11 dogs of all breeds,
from McDuff, a Scottish terrier with attitude, to Sally, a
gentle 160-pound Newfoundland giant.
Jackson, the therapy group's president, says the program works
in part because of the dogs' unconditional love.
"They don't demand anything of these children at all. So for a
child who's a struggling reader, it's much easier than reading
with an adult," she said.
All of the dogs are certified for therapy work. Compared to
their usual volunteer rounds at hospitals, sitting with the
children is a treat, Jackson said.
"She loves the program. She enjoys the kids," Jackson said as
she petted Tillie, one of her three golden retrievers working in
therapy. "She says she likes the pictures best."
Reading with Rover's winter session ends next week. A spring
session begins March 24. There is no cost for families who
participate in the volunteer-based program.
Hagendorn said she currently receives twice as many applications
than there are slots. The children are evaluated by need.
She said she hopes to expand the program, and that she is
getting information requests from Ohio to Mississippi.
"There's a real interest and a real demand," she said.
Additional information and application forms are available at
all Henderson libraries.