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Doggy volunteers break barriers for kids struggling to read

Mar 07, 2018 02:56PM ● Published by Keyra Kristoffersen

Kids have the opportunity to practice their reading with a helpful pooch at the Sandy Library. (Karen Burns)

Each month, Sandy and other libraries around Salt Lake County host a meeting of dogs and kids for a day of reading. 

“The parents, I think they almost love it more than the kids do because it’s the one thing that will get their kids to read out loud,” said Cynthia, who runs the Reading Education Assistance Dog (READ) program with Stacey at the Sandy Library. 

Sandy has arranged to have three reading therapy dogs from Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) to come on the third Saturday of every month and sit on a blanket and be read to by children struggling to read. 

“We put a blanket down and some pillows and we’re trying to just provide a really safe, comfortable non-judgmental, non-threatening environment for a child to practice their reading skills,” said Karen Burns, the assistant director of ITA and coordinator of the READ program. “The dog is not going to make fun if they make a reading mistake, they’re not going to laugh at them, they’re not going to judge them.”

The human part of the team helps children who struggle with reading words through their dogs in order for children that may feel insecure reading out loud, but reading to a dog may in keep them calm. 

“It’s extremely well received,” said Cynthia. “It’s always full and we often have to turn people away.”

ITA is a nonprofit that began 25 years ago by taking registered therapy animals to hospitals, rehab centers, prisons and schools for the deaf and blind. In 1999, a board member posited whether the benefits would transfer into a school environment with kids struggling to read, and a pilot program was introduced at Bennion Elementary and Salt Lake City Library.

“Library loved it, school loved it, kids at the school made great strides in reading levels with extra benefits like showing up to school more,” said Burns.

When the pilot program ended up on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, people from around the United States and outside began calling for more information. ITA realized that a training manual ought to be produced in order to teach others how best to implement the program into their communities. 

Sandy started taking reading therapy dogs five years ago and now there are over 400 volunteers across Utah, Montana and Idaho and 5,000 registered READ teams in 50 states and 23 countries with dogs, cats and rabbits. A man from the Sudan contacted ITA to help his village train a donkey to be a reading donkey. 

The training manual has already been translated in Italian and is currently in the process of being translated into Spanish and Chinese, thanks to a visit in January 2017 by groups from Taiwan and Mexico visiting to learn about how it works in order to take it to rural areas throughout their countries. 

The group from Taiwan came from a university where the difference between therapy and service dogs keep many from helping in hospitals. Visiting doctors are looking to start a program that will train working dogs into “learning dogs.” The visitors observed four hour-long training sessions as well as sat with the kids at Sandy library. 

“Taiwan has invited Intermountain Therapy Animals to go back in November to speak at an educators conference,” said Burns. “There’s excitement to get started in both countries.”

One of the biggest challenges, said Burns, is trying to keep up with the local and international interest and finding volunteers. 

For those interested in finding out more about becoming a reading team, visit http://www.therapyanimals.org/R.E.A.D.html

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