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Reading is For the Dogs

Featured Photo from Reading is For the Dogs

Some special local canines are helping kids start a new chapter and rekindle a love of reading

Therapy dogs are everywhere these days: Nursing homes, college campuses during exam time, physical therapy units, and in the case of a resident goldendoodle in White Plains, New York even funeral homes. Not to be outdone, we in the Oviedo-Winter Springs area have a pack of dogs roaming local libraries, bookstores, and schools to help children practice their reading skills and develop a love of reading. They’re called Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ, get it?), and they are part of the local READing Paws program.

Former special-education teacher Merilee Kelley, who discovered READing Paws through her canine therapy work, now helps run the program in the area.

“[READing Paws] had two people when it first started in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the late 1990s,” says Merilee, who not only oversees READing Paws chapters here and in Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, Tennessee, and Alabama, but also trains READ owners in other countries, as well. “We try to teach children to not just read, but to love reading. We look at a story and have the dog help us figure out the words.”

The READing Paws program is geared toward children who are having difficulty with reading. Reading sessions are in small groups and are usually for first, second, and third graders. READing Paws teams will also serve special-needs students in any grade. Demand for dogs to visit area schools is so high that the local READing Paws chapter does virtually no outreach, Merilee says. And the reason interest is high is because local schools are seeing results.

According to READing Paws research, when a child reads to a dog, the child’s blood pressure decreases, they are more likely to forget about perceived limitations, and they worry less about making mistakes. A dog creates a feeling of safety and intimacy, while drawing attention outward. Other documented results of children reading to dogs include improvements in speech motivation, self-esteem, and social skills.

“Sometimes people don’t want to be in front of a person due to fear, but they don’t hold back in front of a dog,” says Jennie Wagner of Oviedo, a READing Paws handler for her yellow Lab, Dixie, and the mother of three children. “They see the dog as more of a friend. I’ve seen kids who are normally so shy. But when the dog puts her head on their lap and looks up at them, their confidence builds. It’s amazing to witness it.”

Merilee who owns READing Paws dogs Cari, a black Lab, and Tarra, a golden retriever says that handlers can help guide kids in their communication with the dog, which builds on their learning.

“We can ensure they are showing the dog the pictures, so the dog knows what’s going on,” says Merilee. “Children will always join in to help the dog.”

“Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Dixie didn’t understand. Can you reread that?’” explains Jennie.

But not any dog can be a READing Paws dog. The job must be a good fit for the animal and those who benefit from their work. READing Paws dogs must be calm, quiet, and easily accessible, says Jennie. Dogs who are suited for the role are fully trained and tested for health and safety issues and appropriate temperament, and they are fully insured for liability. For allergy reasons, READing Paws dogs are also fully groomed before every reading session.

READing Paws teams a handler and therapy dog must complete therapy-dog training, testing, evaluation, and registration with a nationally recognized therapy dog group. Handlers undergo criminal background checks, orientation, and training, as well.

The red tape is worth it, says Jennie, because the program makes an impact on young readers that lasts a lifetime.

Merilee tells of a time she was visiting a child in a local hospital with her dog Cari. Merilee mentioned that Cari also helps children read. The patient’s sister, who was in the room, lit up and began sharing fond memories of a dog named Abbi who used to come to her elementary school years ago. Abbi, as it turned out, was Merilee’s other READing Paws dog, now retired.

“It was great to know Abbi made such a wonderful impression,” says Merilee.

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