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The most patient audience

How man’s best friend helps kids learn to read

Created date

July 24th, 2012

On a sunny, spring afternoon, 10-year-old Charles Tyner could have been anywhere enjoying his day off of school: at the park, the local swimming pool, at home playing video games. Instead, he chose the central branch of Baltimore City s Enoch Pratt Free Library surrounded by two of his favorite things, dogs and books. Tyner is one of many children benefiting from a series of programs that have become part of a nationwide movement. They go by various names PAWS to Read, the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program but all of them have the same goal, using dogs to foster the next generation of readers in an age dominated by television, computers, and smart phones.

Print and literacy

As far as literacy goes, technology is probably one of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century, says Ellen Riordan, chief of planning, programs, and partnerships at the Pratt Library in Baltimore, Md. Because everyone is so focused on the digital world, the average American home is no longer as print-rich an environment as it was 30 or 40 years ago, and this change has had a negative impact on literacy. The last several years have seen the release of studies that support Riordan s claims, highlighting a national decline in reading skills and habits. For instance, of the fourth graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test in 2009, 33% of them ranked below basic (at their grade level) in reading. The other 67% didn t fare much better, ranking below proficient. Even among the nation s youngest children, it appears that numerous parents are no longer introducing them to books. According to a 2007 report from the Reach Out and Read National Center in Boston, Mass., less than half of all children five and younger have parents that read to them on a daily basis.

Novel approach to reading

Beginning in the late 1990s, however, animal lovers and education activists put their heads together; the result, a novel approach to introducing kids to books and making reading an irresistible pleasure for them. When you think of therapy dogs, you initially think of people taking their pets to nursing homes and hospitals, says Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, Utah. But in 1999, it occurred to a member of our board that the benefits of dogs in the therapeutic environment would translate rather well to helping kids learn to read. Out of this came our R.E.A.D. program Reading Education Assistance Dogs. This same mode of thinking has spurred the development of similar programs across the country in which trained therapy dogs visit schools and libraries to provide a willing and encouraging audience for kids who are learning to read. For a lot of children, the early phases of reading can be difficult, not just technically but emotionally as well, says Riordan. Fear of ridicule and embarrassment can turn a fun activity into a negative experience, and reader dogs help to prevent that. In fact, medical studies have shown that being around animals lowers a person s blood pressure and stress levels. Vicki Rummel, executive director of the Maryland-based Pets on Wheels, has seen it firsthand while visiting libraries for her group s PAWS to Read program. I ve had kids come up to me and say they love reading to the dogs because the dogs don t laugh at them when they stutter or make fun of them when they mispronounce a word, she adds. They re more likely to read because of that positive association with the activity. The concept of reader dogs has proven so successful that it has transcended U.S. borders and the English language itself. The Intermountain Therapy Animals R.E.A.D. program, for one, has official chapters in Canada, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, and South Africa. Regardless of the language spoken, the results are the same. Having a positive view of reading is crucial to the development of a child s reading skills and habits, explains Riordan, who brought the Pets on Wheels PAWS to Read program to the Pratt Library three years ago. These programs keep the kids reading, familiarize them with the printed word, and sharpen their fluency by having them read aloud. This builds their confidence and improves their reading comprehension by leaps and bounds. Charles Tyner is living proof. Reading Jane Goodall sRickie & Henrito a yellow labrador named Moose, he finishes the last sentence and exclaims, I have to get another book... michael.williams@erickson.com

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