Therapy Dog Reading Program Makes Magic
Therapy Dog Reading Program: Getty
Reading to dogs, possibly more than any other type of pet therapy, is powerful.
At first glance, the scene isn’t so remarkable: a school-aged child sits in an empty classroom, one hand on the back of an attentive dog, the other turning pages of her book. She’s reading aloud. The dog’s devoted owner sits across the room, only half paying attention.
Now look more closely. That volunteer is working wizardry behind-the scenes.
“We have to be very subtle,” says Deborah Green senior manager of volunteers, education and outreach for New York’s Bideawee animal shelter. She oversees the group's “Reading to Dog’s” program.
It’s a complex situation, she says, because it’s up to the volunteer to keep a magical atmosphere alive in the room, one where the dog knows exactly what the child is saying. To the child, this dog understands, but like all dogs, never judges, ever.
“The volunteer is an interpreter, an intermediary for the dog,” she says.
The Special Skills of Reading Dogs (and Cats)
“Some practice with their dogs ahead of time by putting a biscuit on each page of the book, creating a positive association to reading.”
Others have taught their dogs to turn pages with a paw. Still others have come up with a series of subtle hand signals, prompting the dog to look up at the child at the most poignant parts of the story. “With this, the child is drawn deeper into the experience,” she adds.
There have been cats too. Some kids like cats better. And some cats can sit for an hour, purring away happily in a reading child’s lap.
All the kids are struggling readers. Some are shy, some are behind, some are studying English as a second language, and they believe this dog is really listening to them; in many ways he is. “You have to have just the right kind of dog,” says Green. “One that’s calm, that can be around kids yelling and running and smelling like PB&J sandwiches, and not get distracted.”
And most importantly, one that’s drawn to children. This is not all dogs, it is not something bred into them. It’s just a personality thing, she says.
The group’s volunteers are mainly retired teachers because, they too, must be infinitely patient and have a real bond with kids.
Volunteers Are Trained, Too
“If a child stumbles or gets stuck, the volunteer has to say, ‘I don’t think Rover knows that word, do you think you could sound it out for him?’ They bring it back to the dog, and use the animal as a tool,” says Green.
Any pair that thinks they can hack it as a reading therapy team has to go through a rigorous background check followed by a 6-week training course and a test, all organized by Bideawee. “We don’t want the schools to have to worry,” says Green, who took the program over about five years ago, from its founder Joan Stoppa. Stoppa started it around 1999.
The program has been around so long mainly, because it works. “Kids who nothing else has worked for, have jumped two grade levels in just a few weeks,” says Green. Once they are convinced the dog is following along, they come back wanting to show off their skills.
“Kids who would never even look at a book, go home and demand to read to their parents so they can come back and impress the dog,” she says.
If that’s not magic, we don’t know what is.