WHEN SCHOOL CHILDREN in Rocky Hill, CT, have reading problems to overcome, they now spend time reading to dogs like Gulliver instead of in remedial reading classes that may impart a stigma. Gulliver, a 160-pound, unflappable Newfoundland who loves to listen to stories looks more like a bear than a dog. "In fact," says Janet Massey, a retired teacher and Gulliver's owner, "kids want to know if he's a bear-and if he bites." (No and no.)
Massey and Gulliver serve as volunteers with Reading Education Assistance Dogs, a program with teams of owners and registered therapy animals screened for temperament, good manners and attitude. More than 1,600 dogs (and one African Grey parrot) in 49 states and the District of Columbia sprawl, pant, gaze into the distance, lean companionably, or sigh as they listen raptly to stories read by children. Kids also read to dogs in bookstores and libraries for fun but Massey finds working with children who have reading problems the most rewarding.
In Rocky Hill, the elementary school assigns 2 or 3 students who would benefit from the program to read to Gulliver once a week over an 8 to 10 week period. "Kids who have trouble reading shut down when they're asked to read aloud in class," Massey says. But that doesn't happen with dogs. She guides the students gently if they stumble over a word, asking them to repeat it to Gulliver. "I often cease to exist for these children. They talk to Gulliver, not to me."
Massey recalls one first-grader who told her he had no friends and nobody liked him. "During a session Gulliver fell asleep and I thought, 'Oh, dear, now he'll think the dog's bored with him.'" Massey said she hoped the boy wasn't upset that Gulliver fell asleep. Smiling, the child answered, "He wasn't asleep. He just had his eyes closed so he could picture what I was reading better." Massey says, "That boy had stopped feeling sorry for himself."
A Nurse Endorsed Therapy Dogs. Using dogs to help young readers was the inspired concept of Sandi Martin, now an emeritus board member of Utah's nonprofit Intermountain Therapy Animals. Martin, a nurse, knows how therapy dogs can help hospitalized children who are sick and scared. One night in 1999, Martin awoke suddenly. "It struck me that kids who have trouble reading have the same problems as hospitalized kids, so maybe a furry friend could help them relax," she says. Thus the R.E.A.D.program was born.
Results have been impressive. Some children have gone up 4 reading levels in 6 months. Teachers also note that self-esteem improves, kids become more active in class, and they actually offer to read aloud.
Nissa Simon writes on health and psychology. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn Fall 2007.
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