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Last Updated: 02/23/2018

 Article of Interest - Literacy

Reading goes to the dogs
Children's program builds self-esteem, reading ability
by Eric Leake, Las Vegan Sun <>, February 28, 2003
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Alexandra DePari admits that her reading buddy Charlie is not always the perfect listener.

"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 Jackson said.

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 said.

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 important."

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 therapy dog.

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 idea.

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 reading?"

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 respect animals.

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.

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