for National Geographic News
Walk into a Salt Lake City public library on a Saturday afternoon and you might see something you didn't expect: children reading books to dogs.
Three years ago, Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) started the innovative R.E.A.D.® (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program at the suggestion of board member Sandi Martin, a registered nurse.
Martin, a long-time advocate of pets in hospitals, had seen firsthand the positive effect animals can have on mentally and physically challenged children.
If therapy dogs help those children, thought Martin, who is an avid reader and book lover, then perhaps they can help kids who are struggling with reading, too.
The program is simple. For about 30 minutes each week, kids from five to nine years old read aloud to dogs of all shapes and sizes, from tiny Yorkshire Terriers to imposing Mastiffs. The canines' handlers sit nearby to help facilitate the interaction.
Martin says children are more willing to read to dogs than to their classmates, in part because kids who stumble over new words know their furry friends won't make fun of them. As a result, children's reading skills improve and their self-esteem grows.
Initially the R.E.A.D.® program was held in the main branch of the Salt Lake City library, but it has become so popular that all six branches now hold weekly sessions. Last year more than 500 children participated.
More Like Play Than Work
"The kids are really convinced the dogs are listening to them," said ITA Executive Director Kathy Klotz.
A young boy recently told a handler he had scared one of the dogs. "How did you do that?" she asked.
"I read him a ghost story," he replied.
Learning while having fun is what makes the program successful. When people of all ages participate in therapy with animals, explains Klotz, they stop thinking about what they can't do and focus on being with the dog.
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