When you try to think of someone who would exercise the least amount of judgment upon others, few come to mind. It’s in our nature to opine on others, much as it is in a dog’s nature to wag its tail when it’s paid even the least bit of attention. Dogs are simply a different story. To quote from John Grogan’s bestseller Marley & Me about his relationship with his own loyal labrador, “A dog doesn't care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his.”
That’s what makes programs like the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program so brilliant. R.E.A.D. aims to build confidence in children and strengthen their communication skills by providing therapy dogs for them to read to out loud. Results from the program boast an overall improvement in test scores, all while building the child’s self-esteem.
If you’re wondering how the concept works, think back to your own school days. For some, reading out loud was a source of embarrassment and shame. Schoolchildren could often be cruel, ridiculing their peers’ troubles instead of encouraging them to overcome. Many children give up on reading altogether and relent their turn to read out loud to the next student. Now think: what if your only audience while reading out loud had been a dog? Without the scrutiny and vulnerability to mockery, reading out loud may have been a pleasurable experience. With time and practice, reading level and self-assurance increase, and a sense of worth and accomplishment is earned.
The program began in 1999 as a part of Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA). The idea was conceptualized by Sandi Martin, a member of ITA, who wondered how she could bring therapy animals into a literary setting. Thus the program was launched, and now, eleven years later, R.E.A.D. groups have expanded to schools and libraries in Canada and the United Kingdom.
The dogs used in the program come in all shapes and sizes – they are selected for their temperament rather than for their breed. R.E.A.D. dogs are usually mild mannered and patient, calm and well groomed. Other animals have been used in the program as well, from rabbits to guinea pigs to parrots.
Children participating in the program are given animal-centric books and typically learn about their canine companion while building their reading skills. This enables a complete learning experience, making reading a highly enjoyable and memorable encounter.
Similar programs have sprung up across the nation, stemming from local branches of the Humane Society, pet rescue organizations, or using other animals. I Read To Animals, a part of the Best Friends Animal Society, has achieved great success in four different states using a variety of different animals. The Black Stallion Literacy Project, started by Tim Farley, son of Walter Farley, author of the Black Stallion books, focuses on using horses as a child’s audience as the child explores Farley’s books by reading them out loud to their equine companions. Children involved in the program also learn about horses, from anatomy to care and grooming.
So if your child is having difficulty reading, or you notice a decrease in your child’s self-confidence, consider having them participate in a read-to-animals program this school year. Though R.E.A.D. groups may not expand to all corners of the world, yet, it may not surprise you to find that your local animal rescue or shelter may have a similar program of its own. The benefits of reading to animals are, without a doubt, something to bark about.