A wag of the tail, a curious tilt of the head, or a happy, albeit drooling, pant of the tongue. Our dogs communicate with a language unlike our own; unable to speak, they show their affection, needs or feelings through their body language. While many of us wish our dogs could talk, we’ve learned to adapt to their language as they have learned to respond to ours. Olly, a 7-year-old Basset hound and Golden retriever mix may not be able to speak our language but he doesn’t let that stop him from helping others to do so. On Saturdays, Olly skips his favorite walks in Overton Park and instead walks into the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis, Tenn. He picks out a spot to do some reading while children queue up with books in their hands, waiting for their turn to read to their favorite, furry tutor.
Instead of coming equipped with pencils and paper, Olly only needs his large floppy ears and soft, black fur to do to the trick. He settles in beside his students and listens quietly as they read him his favorite tales. A volunteer with the Paws for Reading program at the Poplar Avenue library, Olly and his owner, Luciana Richer, help children gain confidence in literacy. The Reading Education Assistance Dogs program (R.E.A.D.) was founded in 1999 by a nonprofit organization called Intermountain Therapy Animals, but first came to Memphis in 2004. The premise of the program is to improve the literacy skills of children through the use of trained therapy animals. The Memphis Library uses the West Tennessee Therapy Dogs organization (WTTD), a R.E.A.D. team, for their Paws for Reading Program. “It’s been found that children who are behind in reading can, if they regularly read to a dog, often increase their reading scores by a year or two because they do not feel judged. It kind of relaxes them enough to read and make mistakes,” says Susan Penn, Children’s Librarian at the Central Library.
According to a study by the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, third-graders who read to therapy dogs once a week for 10 weeks improved their reading fluency by 12 percent. Every Saturday, from 1:00 p.m.-3:00 pm, the library provides a designated reading space to the Paws for Reading program. The dogs are trained to behave well in public and provide the children with a non-judgmental, non-critical, patient reading companion.
“[The children] know that they can make all the mistakes in the world and that dog is still going to be quiet, patient and supportive. They get the practice they need to continue to improve which helps with their school work…and it also helps to develop a love for reading in children at a very critical age,” explains Angela Massengale, Senior Manager of the Children’s Department at the Central Library.
The dog handlers are also trained in tutoring literacy, but unlike their companions, they aren’t required to wear a leash. Many are simply retired teachers who enjoy volunteering their time and expertise to the cause. Richer and Olly’s specialty is helping Spanish speaking students or second language learners as Richer is fluent in English, Spanish and Portuguese.The program targets children from ages 5-11 and each child is assigned a 15-to-20 minute shift to read a book, or several books, to the dog. Massengale says that Clifford the Big Red Dog is always a popular choice, but they provide a variety of reading materials to keep the children on their toes. “The child doesn’t really know it’s studying. It’s just fun,” says Anne Weiss, founder of WTTD.
While a dog in a library might be an unusual sight, Massengale said the reception has always been one of immediate joy and gratitude. “[One] boy came in to the department a couple of years ago with a severe speech impediment, and he was hesitant about reading aloud because of his stutter. When he sat down to read to the therapy dog, he immediately read out loud perfectly and without a single stutter, and his family was visibly moved to tears,” recalls Massengale. Weiss explains that dogs have a calming effect on the children. As they read, they can pet the dog’s fur and some children even wind the dog’s long coat around their fingers to release the stress and anxiety of reading aloud, “They are so relaxed when they are petting a dog. The blood pressure goes down… It works. It absolutely works. It’s the best program.”
Weiss adds that reading isn’t the only skill the children learn in the program, “Some of the children have never had a dog or petted a dog”. Volunteers take time to teach the children how to properly pet the dogs, brush them and speak to them. They hope that by doing this, they can also promote responsible pet care and humane education. Because of an overwhelming interest in the program, Paws for Reading has since expanded to the Bartlett Library and hopes to continue to grow as more volunteers sign up, “We are always looking for more volunteer teams, because the more we have, the more we can come in contact with people who can really use our help,” Weiss says. When Olly was asked what he enjoyed most about the program, he wagged his tail and gave a paw up; unfortunately he wasn’t able to go into more detail. To learn more about the program, you can visit their website at westtntherapydogs.org.
Paws for Reading Program Improves Literacy for Children
Feature | June 2014
Story by Rebekah Olsen
Photography courtesy of Marcey Wright