by Judy Beltzner
For those of us who learned to read with Dick, Jane and their adorable dog, Spot, reading and dogs have always had a positive association. But back then, the idea of encouraging children to read with dogs to improve their reading skills was not yet on anyone’s radar. That changed for children in the National Capital Region in 2004 with the introduction of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.®) program under the umbrella of Ottawa Therapy Dogs.
Chantel Hutter and her Spaniel/Sheltie mix, Chelsea, were already a team with Ottawa Therapy Dogs when she came across Intermountain Therapy Animals and R.E.A.D. in the news. Chantel instantly knew that this was what she and Chelsea were meant to do, and after obtaining permission from the Western Quebec School Board for a pilot program, they soon became the first Canadian R.E.A.D. team. Chantel later qualified as a R.E.A.D. instructor through Intermountain Therapy Dogs in Utah and was instrumental in developing Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ R.E.A.D. program which currently has over 15 volunteer R.E.A.D. teams in local schools and libraries.
Sylvie Martel, who was a R.E.A.D. team with her previous Golden Retriever, Moxie, coordinates Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ library programs and often helps run the evaluations where therapy dogs and their handlers are tested for the
R.E.A.D. program to see if they qualify to work with children – an extra level of testing in the career of a therapy dog team. These therapy dogs in particular need a special kind of calm, relaxed temperament so they are comfortable in a busy school environment which can often be noisy and chaotic. And even though many therapy dogs enjoy visiting room-to-room in hospitals, not all of them like to sit or lie still for long periods of times like Reading Education Assistance Dogs, who truly enjoy their time curling up with children and books and being read to with lots of hugs and petting.
Rosemary Chisholm and her Golden Retriever, Tara, are familiar faces at the Centennial branch of the Ottawa Public Library as well as the Chelsea Library. Tara is always a huge hit with the children and it isn’t unusual for her to dress up for the occasion. In fact, her ‘regular readers’ will often arrived dressed up to read to her, too – like the princesses or heroes in the stories they enjoy. Andrea Gowing in Children’s Programs at Centennial is a very enthusiastic supporter of the R.E.A.D. program – perhaps because she herself struggled with reading as a child and has seen firsthand what therapy dogs can do. Dogs, she says, “lower blood pressure and are a calming influence … they don’t care about mistakes!” Their gentle, non-judgmental interaction with the children who read to them is what makes R.E.A.D. such a powerful program.
Handlers in OTD’s R.E.A.D. program are committed to improving literacy skills (in fact, several handlers have been teachers themselves) and are able to engage and communicate with the children at their level. The emphasis is on nurturing a connection between the child and the dog without the stress and pressure of being put on the spot. Any reading guidance from the handlers is given in the context of reading with the dog, such as “Tara doesn’t understand the word
‘tomorrow’ so let’s sound it out for her.”
The program has also helped some children overcome their fear of dogs. Alix Ranger and her Boxer/Rottweiler mix, aptly named Roxy, is another of OTD’s ‘library dogs’ who visit the Ruth E. Dickinson library once a month for a weekend R.E.A.D. program. Alix has special memories of a young boy who was clearly afraid of Roxy at first and sat as far away as he could with his book. Over time, however, he started to come closer and closer, although he still approached Roxy from the tail end instead of where her teeth were! When he finally got up the courage to pet her, he was delighted by how soft she was, how gentle, how sweet – and not only was his fear gone, he didn’t want to leave her!
Parents appreciate the opportunity for their children to read in a warm, welcoming and supportive environment as part of this unique literacy initiative by Ottawa Therapy Dogs. Elizabeth Fosbery, in Children’s Programs at the Ruth E. Dickinson branch, echoes her colleague, Andrea Gowing’s experience with the R.E.A.D. program at Centennial and both librarians also that note the benefits of the program aren’t limited to simply reading — Andrea says that even older children have practised school presentations to the dogs (who wag their tails in approval!).
Studies by UC Davis, a world leader in cross-disciplinary research at the University of California, found that children who read to a dog for 10 weeks — as students in Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ R.E.A.D. programs in schools do — improved their reading skills by 12 percent (in the first study) and 30 percent (in the second). And that’s not all: “…75 percent of parents reported that their children read aloud more frequently and with greater confidence after the study was completed.”1
The clear conclusion is that while fear of failure — and the embarrassment that may come with it — is human, dogs as reading companions help by just being themselves. They don’t judge, they don’t laugh and they don’t apply any pressure
– and children benefit enormously by reading to a friend who happens to be
overflowing with unconditional love – and covered in fur.
Judy Beltzner has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2010. Currently an associate member, Judy is a past Director on Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ Board of Directors and was part of a therapy dog team — with Tigger, her beautiful black lab/golden retriever cross — that also visited CHEO’s Traumatic Care Injury unit several years ago. Tigger was born to be a guide dog and when seizures prevented him from pursuing that career, Judy determined that he could serve people in a different way. He brought much comfort to hospitalized children and their families, and also loved being read to by children at local libraries as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.®) program.