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Dogs Helping Children to Read

From Issue: Volume XVI - Number 3

by Aleksandra Wojtalewicz

A pigtailed blonde first grader sits behind a Labrador retriever and places her reading book on top of the dog’s back. Groucho, almost twice the size of the first grader, lies calmly on the floor, listening to the child read her book.

In another corner of the Bryant Elementary School library, Raisin, a tan pug, is sitting in a first grade boy’s lap and listening attentively to his story. The dogs and stories being read differ, yet the same smile of contentment appears across each child’s face as he or she reads aloud to a dog and calmly pets the animal.

The six dogs present in the library are part of Beach Animals Reading with Kids (B.A.R.K.), a volunteer program that helps children improve their literacy by reading to certified therapy dogs. “The whole idea is to get the children to practice reading,” said B.A.R.K founder Josie Gavieres, who is also a recipient of the Honda Helpful Award for her volunteer work.

According to Gavieres, reading aloud is important in a child’s development of literacy. Children who have difficulty reading have a hard time reading aloud in front of peers and adults because they fear being made fun of and criticized. “Dogs provide rapt attention and children can read aloud without fear of interruption,” said Gavieres.

In addition, “There’s no judgment with the dogs,” said Paloma Ibarra, volunteer and handler of Amiko, a Leonberger.

The dogs and handlers serve as literacy mentors. “We are not tutors,” said Gavieres.

All dogs are tested, certified and insured as therapy dogs by Therapy Dogs International.

Each child spends approximately 15 minutes reading to the dog — the time it takes the child to read one story, per week. During the six-week program course, each child receives a bookmark that gets stamped every week. After a child attends all sessions and shows his stamped bookmark, he receives a book. In addition, each child also has his picture taken with the dog. “That way, they can show mom and dad what they’ve been reading too,” said Gavieres.

The program’s outreach to children doesn’t end at the library door.

The volunteers recently went to Bryant Elementary School’s recital and will attend the school’s family dinner and awards ceremony. “We are trying to get involved so kids know the dogs support them in other things as well,” said Gavieres.

There has been improvement in literacy among the students, according to Gavieres. In an interview for the Honda Helpful Award, Bryant Elementary School Principal Doris Robinson said she sees “a huge difference in the students.”

Reading with dogs allows children to relax and become more comfortable with reading, said Gavieres. At the beginning of the program, each child is familiarized with the dog. Each handler oversees the session. “All the kids have been extremely respectful,” said Gavieres.

The students at Bryant and Roosevelt elementary schools, where the program is currently active, look forward to their sessions with the dogs, said Gavieres. Students have asked their teachers if they could stay in the library during recess and lunch to read with the dogs. “[It’s great] watching the kids’ faces [as they read to the dogs]; they just glow,” said Gavieres. “They all want to be the next ones to read.”

Yet the student’s aren’t the only ones that are excited for reading. The dogs seem to be enjoying the sessions as well. “She absolutely adores it,” said Bette Mehlbrech, of her golden retriever Rusti. “She trots right to the door to meet with the children and trots with the child back.”

Even before Mehlbrech arrives at the school, Rusti paces back and forth in the car as if to say, “‘Come on mom, I want to read with the kids,’” said Mehlbrech with a chuckle.

Mehlbrech has been a volunteer since November. The retired teacher became involved to continue helping children but “in a fun way. I knew I had a really good dog so I got her certified. It’s the perfect combination for both of us,” she said.

The program currently has six dogs. “We are looking for more well behaved dogs with owners who have an hour [to spare for volunteering]” so the program can expand to more schools, said Gavieres.

Gavieres, who “always wanted to be a teacher,” founded the program after her dog 3-year-old Labrador retriever Graucho, was dropped from a guide dog course while being close to completion.
Starting the program was difficult because no school principal showed interest in the program. After calling 15 schools, Bryant Principal Robinson agreed to have the program.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase [in the student’s] self-esteem and they feel more confident with what they are doing,” said Robinson.

B.A.R.K. volunteers consist of reading tutors and former educators. “Every volunteer usually calls me after each session [to share a story],” said Gavieres.

B.A.R.K. is free to participating schools and libraries. Gavieres funds the program herself, but accepts monetary donations and books. Yet aside from donations, she said that the program mostly lacks dogs. Gavieres, who is self-employed as a medical transcriber, hopes for a slow growth “so I can manage it yet still reach a lot of kids.”

Children continue to rush into the library and wait for their turn to read to the dogs. It is then that Gavieres knows that her program is successful. She smiles and steps to the side, listening in as a first grader boy cuddles next to Amiko, with his arm around the dog, reading confidently.