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When Dogs Listen, Kids Read Better

An Unlikely Solution to Our Children’s Reading Ailments

by BARBARA NIMRI AZIZ

American children are in the doldrums. Not their persons. It’s their reading skills that are in steady decline. In science, math and reading, compared to their peers across the world. American students make a poor showing. And professors report that an alarming number of students entering U.S. colleges require remedial classes in reading.

Educators are debating; parents are fretting; money is poured into research; all kinds of color-coded, pop-up and multi-media books are developed to help teach our young to read. Nationwide, costly and controversial charter schools are replacing public schools; parents are paying huge private school fees and hiring tutors for their children. What to do?

There is one modest but effective solution few educators mention when discussing children’s reading needs:—therapy dogs. This service is free, effective, and heartwarming. What’s going on?

In the course of my radio productions featuring local libraries in New York State, I interviewed ten librarians and asked each how they were addressing this national crisis. They know that schools can’t manage. They admit their libraries see few young visitors today; they say they’ll try anything to get children to handle books. Libraries buy iPads and other e-reading devices to loan out; they construct playrooms that overtake adult reading spaces; they budget for more computers. They bring in celebrities to read. Which brings me back to the dogs.

Mark Condon is a therapy dog-owner who trains people to train dogs to listen to children reading. Across the U.S. there are 1000s of women and men like Mark and his dog Dutchess and doubtless many more worldwide with the same skills and devotion. Just goggle “therapy dogs”.

Of course I’d known about seeing-eye dogs and the use of dogs for the elderly and for mentally disabled people. But reading?

Mark explains how reading therapy builds on dogs’ sociable nature, their need for attention and affection, their calmness and their long history living with humans. It also builds on children’s imagination. Mark describes the process: the dog is introduced to a class (this therapy is effective for ages 3-10) as a ‘guest’ and one child is selected to read to this ‘guest’. There’s no judgment by the dog of the readers’ abilities, no impatience, no noting errors or speech difficulties: an ideal atmosphere to engage and support the child. The animal listens quietly and even responds when the child shows it a page to illustrate a point from the story.

Apparently results of these programs are very positive; children’s reading abilities markedly improve.

Mark and his dog Dutchess, like therapy teams across the US, are volunteers. They’ll also train your dog, and you, to join the project. Look into it. And look for Mark’s book.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and journalist, host and producer of Radio Tahrir (radioTahirr.org) broadcast on WBAI-NY from 1989-2013.