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Bridges4Kids LogoReading 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
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Colonel marches 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 fun.

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 said.

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' self-confidence.

Longview created its program a few months ago and has no data on its effect.

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 College.

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,' " College said.

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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