Wednesday, January 13, 2010

These Libraries Are Going To The Dogs

A "Reading Dog" Offers A Comforting Paw
(Images Courtesy Of Librarydogs.)

Library cats have garnered nationwide media coverage recently, including here on Book Patrol. Not wishing to offend canine loving readers, today's post gives library dogs equal time. Libraries across the country from Swampscott, MA. to San Jose, CA. are making exceptions to that arcane "No Dogs Allowed " rule for a program proven to help struggling young readers.

"I need a little help with my reading, because I'm sometimes a slow reader," said Linda , a 9-year-old New York City girl. She found the perfect tutor at New York Public Library. Kassandra, another grade-schooler, shares a tutor with Linda, and she puts it this way: "My teacher said, 'Where do you get your reading skills from?' and I told her, 'I read to a dog.'" Both girls struggled with reading out loud until they met shepherd mix Missy, a therapy dog who is part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. The program has been so successful in improving reading scores that it has spread nationwide, over 2,300 dog and trainer teams are now helping reluctant readers become book lovers, according to a 2009 ABC News story.

A Collie Lies Down On The Job.

Kids who have trouble reading often give up when faced with corrections, criticism, and even downright cruelty at the hands of teachers or fellow students. This makes therapy dogs a perfect audience. The dogs are patient, nonjudgmental, and can even be trained to be encouraging. When a reading child pauses or stumbles over a word, a specially trained therapy dog learns to give a gentle nose-nudge or lick. Brian, an 8-year-old, says his reading partner, Border Collie mix Theo, "looks at the story book and smiles a lot." The canine stress reliever makes reading a joy for these kids, instead of a dreaded task.

Keyla Lara Reads To Missy And Handler Eric Dennis At A Bidawee Program For The Homeless.
(Photo Courtesy Of The New York Daily News.)

New York City's Bidawee Learning Center runs a variant of the program, taking therapy dogs to homeless shelters for families in the Bronx and Manhattan. Homeless kids often attend school only sporadically, and their reading skills suffer for it. The tremendous stress of being homeless can also be helped by a furry friend. Director of Homes For The Homeless, Robert Mascali praised the program: "These kids are going through a difficult time in their lives. Its unconditional love and we all need that. They're caressing the dogs. They're loving them. It is 50% emotional and 50% reading." Said one shelter kid: "I have somebody that listens to me when I read. And if I make a mistake, there's no one around to laugh."

Reading To A Boy's Best Friend.

Both dogs and handlers are rigorously screened before becoming eligible for the R.E.A.D. program. Dogs must have graduated from a "canine college" of sorts, receiving therapy certification by working in retirement homes, hospitals, and other settings. Handlers learn basic techniques for teaching literacy, and a love of reading is required. Both members of the team must be comfortable with crowds of noisy, excited kids. Finally both must be able to relax and patiently listen to the children read. Children in the program are encouraged to choose books they enjoy reading, but at least one was sure he'd chosen the right book for another reason: "My dog understanded the story and he liked it," said the 8-year old.

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