Dogs offer comfort to so many people in so many ways. Their quiet presence and unconditional love reaches to the heart of those who interact with them, and this is especially true with the certified therapy dogs who participate in reading programs with young children.
What Are Reading Therapy Dogs and How Can They Help?
What is a Therapeutic Reading Program?
Therapeutic reading programs with dogs have been around for many years, taking place in libraries and elementary schools. Certified therapy dogs are brought in to these facilities to sit or lie quietly while their young human companions read to them. The concept has gained popularity due to the fact that dogs don’t judge, and they don’t put pressure on those having difficulty reading. By reading to a dog rather than another human being youngsters who may have reading issues gain confidence and ability, with reading scores improving over the course of time.
Who Oversees These Programs?
In Canada the St. John Ambulance Society has a therapy dog program that incorporates a wide range of services, including its Paws 4 Stories reading program. Therapy Dogs International (TDI) has a program called Tail Waggin’ Tutors, and Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society) also offers reading-with-dogs programs.
What Does it Take to be a Reading Therapy Dog?
All dogs must go through a certification process that evaluates temperament, health, basic obedience and other factors important in working with people.
Reading therapy dogs often wear more than one hat, visiting senior care homes, university campuses during exam periods to offer stress relief to students, and working with people with varying disabilities.
Once a dog is certified it will receive a distinctive neck scarf to wear, and the dog’s owner is issued official paperwork and identification verifying certification.
A Day in the Life of a Reading Therapy Dog
Sera is a female English Setter who has been a certified TDI therapy dog for 3 years. Her gentle demeanour makes her a perfect ‘Tail Waggin’ Tutor’. Sera visits both libraries and schools once a week. Each session lasts about an hour and may engage several children over the course of that time. Sera will spend 10 or 15 minutes with each child, listening to them read a book of their choosing to her.
Reading days start with a thorough grooming and sometimes a bath. Caryn, her owner, ensures that Sera is clean and tidy, puts on her special neck scarf and then heads for the day’s assignment. After arriving at the facility Caryn finds a quiet spot where she can put Sera on a blanket. The first child arrives, gets settled on cushions or a blanket on the floor and will spend a few minutes reading to Sera and, of course, interacting with his or her canine friend. Sera lies quietly and listens.
Five or six children may benefit from Sera’s ‘tutoring’ in the course of a single visit, reading with increasing confidence and comprehension as the weeks roll along. Generally, reading therapy dogs and their handlers work with the same children week after week so that comfort levels and familiarity are maintained.
Although it may not sound like a tough assignment, Caryn says that Sera is pretty tired by the end of the visit. Staying in a down or sit position quietly for extended periods can be difficult for some dogs, as can maintaining a calm demeanour. The reading therapy visits are, however, easier on the dogs than senior care home visitations according to Caryn, and Sera loves the attention of her various students.
The reading therapy program has been a rewarding addition to Caryn and Sera’s lives. Caryn goes home with the satisfaction of knowing that she and Sera have made a valuable contribution to society; Sera receives the same kind of unconditional love from her ‘students’ that she gives. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
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