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?
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."