Reading in front of a class can be stressful for kids. Luckily, dogs can make it easier.
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Can dogs read? Unfortunately, no. But they can help kids read.

For kids around the country who are struggling with their reading and communication skills, dogs can actually help ease the learning curve by creating a comfortable, pressure-free environment.

Pretty neat, right?


All images via Intermountain Therapy Animals/R.E.A.D., used with permission.

It's all part of a program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs, or R.E.A.D.

R.E.A.D. started 17 years ago in Salt Lake City as a way to connect with kids who spoke other languages and had trouble reading. The idea for therapy dogs had already been established, but it hadn't been used in this type of learning environment.

"It was just an idea that popped into one of our board members' head," said Kathy Klotz, executive director of the R.E.A.D. program. "The benefits that we see when animals get with children in therapeutic settings like in hospitals, we thought, 'Wouldn’t that have the same effect on kids who are trying to learn how to read?' It was one of those lightbulb concepts!"

R.E.A.D. looks for special dogs that seem to have an innate desire to want to make people feel good on a regular basis.

They also need their owner to be on board, of course. After all, they're the ones who have to volunteer. From there, the owner and dog duo go through months of training to make sure they possess the skills and temperament needed to be able engage with any child week after week.

R.E.A.D. has a very specific program that it follows. And perhaps the most important detail is that the child needs to be alone with the therapy dog and owner for the session to be successful. Once they get started, the owner simply facilitates as the therapy dog listens to the child reading.

"The thing about reading with a dog is it gets you away from peer pressure, which is one of the worst things for kids," added Klotz. "The kids in the program, all the time, say things like, 'Well, if I make a mistake, the dog never laughs at me. He won’t tell my friends that I’m stupid. My mom tells me to hurry up all the time, and the dog never does that. He listens to me.'"

The therapy dogs are instilling a strong sense of calm and confidence in each child.

And R.E.A.D. has the numbers to back it up.

"In our first pilot program, they had a dozen kids from different age levels and they all — within one school year — their reading level popped up two to four levels," Klotz said. "It seems like magic, but all it takes is 20 minutes of consistency every week. They start reading at home, they start participating in other things, and their confidence just goes up!"

In fact, a study by UCLA also shows that therapy dogs are able to lower a person's stress level and improve their vital signs. Klotz noted, "If you’re sitting there stroking him, your blood pressure’s going down, your breathing rate slows, there’s overall relaxation, and it feels good."

But if anything captures just how awesome and effective the R.E.A.D. program can be, it's this wonderful story Klotz shared about a therapy dog named Biscuit:

"This little fourth-grader was reading along and he says, 'And the ladies all had bananas in their hair!' The handler happened to have trained her dog to sneeze on command, so she gives the dog this little hand signal, and the dog sneezes and she says, 'Whoops! Biscuit’s wondering why the ladies have bananas in their hair!' And the boy, he sorta stopped, frowned, and looked back at the page and he said, 'Oh, Biscuit, I’m sorry. The ladies had bandanas in their hair.' And then he turned to the handler and he said, 'Boy, she really knows her stuff.'"

Today, the R.E.A.D. program is in all 50 states as well as in 15 other countries.

We always knew dogs were our best friends, but who knew they could be our mentors too?

They make learning incredibly fun.

As in the I-don't-want-to-leave-school kind of fun.

The best part? An unbreakable bond is formed.

"Dogs are great catalysts and motivators to get people willing to participate in what they need to do. People just can’t help it; they’re just drawn to dogs," Klotz said.

"It’s scientific, but it feels like magic."

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Screenshots via @castrowas95/Twitter

In the Pacific Northwest, orca sightings are a fairly common occurrence. Still, tourists and locals alike marvel when a pod of "sea pandas" swim by, whipping out their phones to capture some of nature's most beautiful and intelligent creatures in their natural habitat.

While orcas aren't a threat to humans, there's a reason they're called "killer whales." To their prey, which includes just about everything that swims except humans, they are terrifying apex predators who hunt in packs and will even coordinate to attack whales several times their own size.

So if you're a human alone on a little platform boat, and a sea lion that a group of orcas was eyeing for lunch jumps onto your boat, you might feel a little wary. Especially when those orcas don't just swim on by, but surround you head-on.

Watch exactly that scenario play out (language warning, if you've got wee ones you don't want f-bombed):

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