Dog listens, kids read: a winning combination
Gracie rests at the Columbus Library on Sept. 30. Gracie spends one hour every Friday morning at the library while kids read to her. (Travis Barton/City Journals)
By Travis Barton | firstname.lastname@example.org
South Salt Lake, Utah - Gracie the READ dog is a great listener. Every Friday morning she visits Columbus Library where preschoolers take turns reading outloud to her.
A half Aussie, half black coat retriever, Gracie arrives with her companion Linda Turkovich as volunteers from Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA). ITA is a non-profit organization providing animal-assisted therapy. Gracie, 6, is part of the reading educated assistance dogs (READ) program aimed at improving the literacy skills of children.
“When kids read to a dog, the dog doesn’t go, ‘ha ha you don’t know that word,’” Turkovich said. Gracie spends an hour at the library with seven or eight beginning readers.
Lhaksam Choedon was at Columbus Library where her two kids spent time with Gracie.
“They get to read with Gracie, which is really helpful with their literacy,” Choedon said.
How can dogs help improve a child’s ability to read? Karen Burns, ITA READ coordinator, said it comes down to the atmosphere created by the animals.
“They automatically lower blood pressure that makes for a calm setting…it’s really a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment to practice reading out loud that can be intimidating in a classroom setting,” Burns said.
The program has yielded positive results in children’s literacy. A 2014-2015 study held by READ at Rio Rancho schools in New Mexico revealed that 85 percent of kids had improved reading test scores after participating in the program.
It’s a connection Burns said one librarian described as “magical.” Burns said humans don’t naturally calm the environment.
“There’s just something that the animals do that we can’t as human beings,” Burns said.
Dogs and their human companions have to take an eight-hour class. They also have to pass a handler’s test, which is required every two years. One of the exercises dogs run through is where the handler tells a dog to stay before the leaving the room. The dog can’t move for two minutes.
“We’re preparing for every possible noise and interference, the dog can react to it but they can’t take off,” Turkovich said.
Besides being a non-judgmental listener, Gracie is thoroughly obedient. Turkovich said police officers have told her Gracie is more obedient off the leash than on making her a great dog to interact with people who are learning about dog safety or simply getting used to being around a dog. It’s part of why Choedon brought her kids to meet Gracie.
“Sometimes kids can throw stuff at dogs and get bitten so this is a really good approach on how to get friendly with dogs,” Choedon said.
Turkovich said she would like to go into schools and teach dog safety.
“Kids will take off running and dogs think you’re playing and will run right after you. The worst thing you can do is run,” Turkovich said.
Choedon’s son has learned about dog safety and now always asks Turkovich if he can pet Gracie.
“I feel like he is learning certain skills when he is here with Gracie that he can’t pick up outside,” Choedon said.
Gracie’s journey to becoming a therapy dog started in Wyoming. She was one of 13 puppies found in a snowfield in January. Turkovich said her friends foster for the Humane Society and took the puppies home giving one to Turkovich. Six years and only two accidents in the house later, Turkovich and Gracie are still together.
“Smartest dog I’ve ever had,” Turkovich said. “She had done so much to show people that dogs are not nasty.”
Turkovich, who has a doctorate in nursing, said she loves the affect dogs have on people.
“Wherever you go people are working their dogs to help people feel better about themselves,” Turkovich said. “They give you joy.”
Gracie’s final Friday of the year at Columbus Library will be on Nov. 18 from 10 to 11 a.m.
To find out more about READ dogs, go to therapyanimals.org.