Canine Companions May Help Kids Learn to Read

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"They are accomplishing really challenging goals without realizing how hard they're working because their fear and limitations dissolve in the process," she said.

Therapy dogs are pets that have been certified under guidelines set by the national Delta Society's Pet Partner program. The dogs must be mild mannered, know basic obedience commands, and enjoy meeting new people.

ITA, based in Salt Lake City, has 250 Pet Partner® teams, 45 of which participate in the R.E.A.D.® program. To enter the program, teams go through a two-hour training course. Dogs are taught to look at the children's faces or at the books they are reading so it appears they are listening.

Handlers are given instruction on how to use their canine companions as literacy mentors. For example, instead of asking a child what a word means, the handler may say: "Rover doesn't know what that word means. Can you tell him?" Speaking on behalf of the dog takes the pressure off the child if he or she doesn't know the answer, says Klotz.

Dogs also have a natural calming effect on humans. Studies have shown blood pressure and anxiety levels drop when people are around pets.

"If kids who don't read well can relax enough to focus on learning, hopefully their reading will improve and they'll want to continue to read just for the pleasure of it," explains Martin.

Increased Literacy Skills

To confirm the anecdotal evidence that Martin and other R.E.A.D.® members had seen, a study consisting of ten children was launched in March 2000 at the Bennion Elementary School in Salt Lake City.

Children in the study ranged in age from five to nine years old. All were reading below grade level when the project started and three spoke English as a second language. Each student read once a week for 20 minutes with a Pet Partner® team. At the end of the 13-month study, the school's reading specialist evaluated the children. The results were impressive: Reading scores increased at least two levels and in some cases doubled.

Reading levels weren't the only thing that improved. Teachers noticed an increase in the children's self-confidence and involvement in school activities, as well as a decrease in absenteeism.

The program's positive outcomes and the resulting media attention have flooded ITA with more than 400 inquiries over the past few years from schools, libraries, and individuals as far away as Saudi Arabia and Brazil. A training manual and video are currently being developed by ITA and will be sold later this year to organizations interested in starting R.E.A.D.® programs.

Dogs With Jobs

Viewers can tune in to Dogs With Jobs now in the U.S. and on our international channels. In its third season, Dogs With Jobs explores new and unusual jobs and sheds more light on the powerful bonds between working dogs and their human partners. Every episode stars amazing dogs.

This season of Dogs With Jobs sniffs out a truffle hound in Italy and goes to Florida to track down a bat dog and a termite buster. Fourteen breeds never before seen on the show make an appearance, including Japanese Shiba Inu, Gos d'Atura Catala (Catalan sheepdogs), Spanish water dogs, the Hungarian Pumi, and Karelian bear dogs.

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