By Deborah J. Hall, for The Children’s Book Review
Published: September 13, 2010
Reading is what adults do for relaxation and pleasure. It is also a way to gain knowledge and information. But, to some children, reading can be challenging, difficult, and even scary. If they can’t read well, they often feel embarrassed and frustrated. They may even be teased. Instead of wonderful stories unfolding from the pages the experience is an unpleasant chore, causing the child to avoid doing it whenever possible. This means they do not get the practice they desperately need and so fall farther behind… a real ‘catch-22’.
As explained by reading specialists, “children learn to read through 2nd grade and from 3rd grade on, read to learn”. So, a child who enters 3rd grade deficient in literacy falls behind in learning quickly, and many simply never catch up.
However, in many communities across the United States, some ‘heroes’ are stepping in to offer a much-needed ‘boost’ for these children. And these heroes come in on four feet, not two!
Certified therapy dogs all over the country are helping struggling 2nd graders get a ‘paw up’ in acquiring and perfecting this much-needed skill: reading. These programs are known by many names but in Washington State’s Skagit County the all-volunteer organization, Dogs On Call (“DOC”), is bringing the popular and effective “Tales for Tails Reading Enhancement Program” to many elementary schools in the region.
The first step is for teachers and reading specialists to identify the 2nd grade students who are deficient in reading. Then each one is carefully paired with a certified therapy dog team from Dogs On Call. The dogs who participate are carefully chosen for this job. It requires official certification by one of the major national certifying organizations (Delta Society, Love on a Leash, etc.), the ability to lie quietly and attentively for a period of about an hour, and the innate desire to interact with a stranger (in this case, a child).
Once a week these dogs (with their owners/handlers) go to school where they spend 15-20 minutes in a quiet corner listening to ‘their’ child read aloud to them. The child usually sits on the floor and the dog lies close by. The handler encourages some initial interaction… a pat, a pet, a slurpy kiss… and then the reading begins. Some dogs lay their heads on the child’s lap, others stare intently at the book. And still others gaze lovingly up at the child’s face.
Some dogs are clowns, some just offer a soft warm body to pet and snuggle with, but the magic begins almost immediately. Soon a nervous child becomes calm and more confident. The shy child lights up and wants to chat. The children read aloud to the dog and the dog listens without judgment.
During the time the child reads aloud the handler remains as uninvolved as possible. They do not correct the reading nor offer help unless asked. The only involvement they proactively offer is some help ‘translating’ for the dog. Dogs can’t speak English so they sometimes need the assistance of their owner/handler to share their enjoyment of the child’s reading with the child.
Children of this age have a wonderful ability to ‘suspend their disbelief’ just enough to accept the fact that ‘Spot’s’ sudden placement of a paw on the page means they really loved that particular paragraph. Or the sudden raising of their head means they recognized the word ‘cat’ when the child read it. On occasion a dog will fall asleep and snore. At that point the owner/handler will quickly comment that ‘Spot’ has drifted off to sleep for a moment because the child’s reading was so lovely to listen to. Beyond that the handler/owner remains as unobtrusive as wallpaper.
When the first child is done reading, he/she is encouraged to give the dog a treat (provided by the owner/handler) and a big hug. Then the next child comes in and the process begins again. Each dog listens to the same 3 or 4 children each session, and, depending on the number of children participating, up to 4 teams come in each week.
These weekly sessions provide basically three main things that improve reading skills:
- a chance to practice reading in a supportive, loving, non-critical, stress-free environment
- a reward each week for all the hard work the child has done to improve skills
- the association of reading with something positive rather than the negative feelings so often engendered in these children at the thought/action of ‘having to read’
The Tales for Tails program is not rocket science, nor a magic bullet, but it can and does work in more instances than you might believe. And it is inexpensive and simple. The children enjoy it, the dogs enjoy it, the owners/handlers enjoy it, and reading skills improve. Those of us who participate call it a win-win-win situation. How much better can it get?
Deborah J. Hall is the co-founder of Dogs On Call and has helped design and implement many of the canine-assisted therapy programs in place in elementary schools in her region. She is an experienced service and therapy dog trainer and currently helps train and certify therapy dogs for use in the growing programs in her region. In addition, she is the co-creator/co-author and self-publisher of a series of innovative narrative nonfiction children’s books…The Rainbow Series: Dogs Who Help… that have been used with great success in conjunction with the Tales For Tails Reading Enhancement Programs described in the above article. For more information on these books or to purchase, please visit www.BunnyBudBooks.com or visit www.Amazon.com (search under author name, Deborah J. Hall.
If educators, therapists, specialists, and/or parents are interested in starting a Tales for Tails Reading Enhancement Program in their school(s), Deborah welcomes queries and would be happy to help guide and mentor such people. Please address questions about Tales for Tails, Deborah, or her books to either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.