Therapy Dogs are Going Back to School…to Help Kids!

Therapy dog in library, a part of a reading group for children

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go,” –Dr. Seuss

These profound words coined by famed children’s writer, Dr. Seuss, sums up the meaning and importance of why children need to embark on the power of a good book.  But not all kids share our beloved author’s thoughts on this subject.  Some children have learning disabilities, some may be socially awkward or shy, while others may think reading is just plain “boring.”  

“1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read and 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.”

These statistics gathered by DoSomething.org are alarming and a bit scary if you are a parent of a reluctant reader. Of course, we don’t want to raise illiterate children whose future seems bleak at best, but what can we do?  The old adage of leading a horse to water, stands firm with today’s youth. We can lead them to a pile of books, but we can’t make them read.  

Or can we?

A Dog-Gone Good Idea!

Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes and are not only dedicated to bringing hope, happiness and even pain relief to their charges, but now they’re going back to school to sniff out those reluctant readers!  

This dog-gone good idea is being adopted by many schools in hopes of improving the confidence levels, skills and imagination that reading brings to children.  Too many kids suffer from the fear of “public” speaking; imagine what it would be like to be a shy child suddenly put on the spot to read in front of his or her peers with all eyes focused on them. You may have been in that situation yourself once, so you know how scary it can be.  

Now picture that same stressed child with a low-reading level, not only struggling with shyness, but also having a difficult time getting the words out.  Unfortunately, kids can be cruel, which will only make the reluctant reader more reluctant.  For these reasons, therapy dogs are now embarking on the journey of bringing kids out of their shells to make reading more fun, more productive and a lot less stressful.  Here are a few organizations that are making a real difference in the lives of children.

R.E.A.D Is Changing the Way Kids View Books

Founded in November of 1999, Reading Education Assistance Dogs or R.E.A.D by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, was the first to use trained therapy dogs for the purpose of engaging reluctant readers.  It was initially introduced in a Salt Lake City library where it was and still is, open to both children and adults.  The program was so successful that it only took one year for it to move into the school system. Today R.E.A.D has over 3,500 trained therapy dog teams operating throughout the US, Canada, Finland, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Sweden, South Africa and beyond.

Why is this program so successful?  Aside from the fact that most kids loooove dogs, R.E.A.D operates under the premise of the child teaching the dog to read. After picking out a picture book, or allowing the therapy pooch to pick one, the child sits on the floor in a quiet area, holds the book flat and begins to read. This enables the child to take on the role of teacher, rather than reluctant reader.  This not only gives the child the confidence he or she needs to move forward in his or her reading level, but provides a relaxed atmosphere to learn with no pressure, no embarrassment and absolutely no humiliation.

Labrador retriever reading the book, "El petit prince."

SitStayRead IS Making a Difference!

Founded in 2003, SitStayRead is the number one leading literacy organization in the US dedicated to providing children grades 1-4 with therapy dog teams to help boost their reading and writing levels, which in turn will bolster confidence. This organization is available to Chicago Public Schools and to those in after-school community programs.  In addition, these dedicated folks and their canine reading companions only partner with those schools falling into two areas of need; those with 90% low-income and those that report 60% of third graders in the school are reading below grade-level, which is exactly where it’s needed!  And it’s working!  They report a 47.8 percent rise in test scores among their students, reading through 18,784 books in 2015 alone.  That’s 2,021 children in 76 classrooms benefitting from the SitStayRead program!

Lena McCain,Volunteer Coordinator,shares one success story from a second grade classroom at Chicago’s Manierre Elementary.  A reluctant girl refused to participate and continued to act out for the first two visits with the volunteer and dog.  However, by the third visit, McCain says, I watched her slowly become interested in what we, as a class, were doing and asking for my help. [She] began to open up about not wanting to read or write because it was hard for her, and that if she didn’t have a lot of help, she wouldn’t be able to do it at all.”

McCain continues, “By the final visit, the young girl was able to write her own story, and was so proud of her accomplishment that she was beaming with happiness.”

This is only one of the many success stories that landed SitStayRead the much coveted 2014 Philanthropy Award!!  

School days with #sitstayread #ilovedogs #dogsofinstagram

A photo posted by cynthialynnkim (@cynthialynnkim) on

Who Let the Dogs…In the Library?

Therapy Dogs International is letting the dogs in the library with their Tail Waggin Tutors program, designed for kids who might not otherwise engage in the power of a good book, but also for children who want to spend time tuning their reading skills with a furry-therapy tutor.

A quote taken from the TDI website paints a perfect picture of what this program entails:

“The reading sessions usually take place in a quiet, comfortable area of the library. The child picks out a book that he or she would like to read, and sits down next to the dog and handler and start reading. We often find that the book is one the child thinks the dog would enjoy! The visits are often short, but the impact lasts longer than just the session, as the child may be more likely to read on his or her own…”

Therapy Dogs International was founded in New Jersey in 1976 and since 2012 has 24,750 teams of dogs and handlers.  Though relatively new, the Tail Waggin Tutors operate in after-school programs and during the summer throughout the 50 US States and in some parts of Canada.  

The idea of giving a reluctant reader the option to engage with a reading-therapy dog is one that should be adopted throughout every school system. This method has proven to work time and time again and can help children from all walks-of-life.  If you are interested in having a therapy dog work with your child to improve his or her reading level, check with your child’s school, your local library or simply have your child engage with his or her own pet. You may be surprised at the results!


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