Goes To The Dogs
Furry good listener can boost students' self-confidence.
by Jennifer Toomer-Cook and Tiffany Erickson, Deseret
Morning News, Tuesday, March 23, 2004
For more articles like this
into Longview Elementary, offers a toothy smile and handshake to
a stranger, and leaps into his chair, ready for work.
In his clutch, however, is one strange briefcase: A chew toy.
As states across the country work to build children's literacy
skills, some Utah schools are throwing reading to the dogs.
Man's best friend is working in a handful of schools and several
public libraries to help readers improve, boost their
self-esteem, instill a love for the written word — or just have
These certified Reading Education Assistance Dogs, or READ dogs
for short, seem to have an innate ability to fetch children's
interest in the written word when no one else can, just by
sitting at their side — or, in Colonel's case, plopping smack in
the middle of their laps — and listening to a story.
"It's a magical phenomenon we don't really understand," Kathy
Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals, said
of the dogs' effect on the human psyche. "(But the dogs) help
turn something that's fearful into something (kids) look forward
to. If they have all these happy memories related to books,
they're more likely to want to read in the future. It sounds
simple, but it's powerful stuff."
Intermountain Therapy Animals is a Holladay non-profit whose
trained animals interact with humans in hospitals, mental
institutions, nursing facilities and other settings. The contact
relaxes humans, lowers their blood pressure and helps them
forget about pain and limitations, the group reports.
The group set up the READ program in 1999 at the suggestion of
registered nurse and board member Sandi Martin, who wondered if
such benefits would extend to a reading setting. After all, said
Klotz, "a lot of reading problems aren't about intellectual
ability. They're about fear, shyness and embarrassment."
Reading skills have taken center stage under state and federal
programs to hold schools accountable for student achievement.
Statewide testing shows one in five Utah first- through
third-graders read below grade level.
The READ program, adopted by Longview Elementary in Murray,
Bennion Elementary in Salt Lake City, Holt Elementary in
Clearfield and a handful of Park City schools, aims to nip the
problem in the bud by addressing kids' self-esteem.
It appears to be working.
At Bennion, participating students consistently jump ahead at
least three-fourths of a grade level, and in some cases, as far
as two levels, said Kris Andreasen, facilitator of reading and
math programs at the school.
There, each year teachers select a handful of children to
participate, she said. They look for students who are
significantly behind in reading or have emotional problems —
some living in homeless shelters.
"It's the most inexpensive medicine I have ever seen," Andreasen
Not only will the kids read with the dogs but also open up to
the animal in ways that weren't possible with other humans.
Andreasen said because of the dogs' nonjudgmental and
nonthreatening presence, they are able to make an emotional
connection resulting in marked improvements in students'
Longview created its program a few months ago and has no data on
But kids seem to like it.
Last week, sixth-grader Erik Ritter came to his 15-minute READ
session with a spring in his step, welcomed into his lap
Colonel, a 5-year-old golden retriever, and casually tousled the
dog's ears as he read. Colonel's owner and handler, Susan Daynes,
helped guide Eric's reading.
"Of course, it will take a lot of explicit instruction to help
(students) read on a higher level," Longview principal Betsy
Hunt said. "But we see them looking forward to reading. (The
dog) listens to them, doesn't criticize them, and just loves
them. And they love to read to (the dog)."
Other states have picked up on the benefits, and brought the
READ program to their own schools and libraries. READ now has
127 certified dog-owner volunteer teams in 25 other states; Utah
has 50 dog-handler teams in 17 areas.
READ dogs have to learn the basics in obedience like all therapy
dogs and have a certain disposition: they must be very patient,
mellow and like kids, said READ dog owner and teacher Susan
Some dogs, like Colonel — Intermountain Therapy Animals' 2003
Dog of the Year — prefer lying in laps to listen to stories.
Some are trained to sit up and look at the pages the children
are reading; others place a paw on the book and "read along." A
few are being trained to turn pages with their noses.
READ dogs can be any breed, from mighty mastiffs to tiny
terriers. They are trained as "teams" with their owners, who
volunteer for the program and help guide children as they read.
"If a child struggles with a word, you (the trainer) say things
like 'my dog didn't understand that word, what does it mean?' or
'I think he might want you to sound that word out for him,' "
Longview third-grader Miguel Gomez was happy to do just that for
Colonel during his Goosebumps story. Colonel lay at the boy's
feet, craning his neck to listen as he spoke.
"I feel excited" to read to Colonel, Gomez said. "It helps (me)
to pass the test."
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