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Newfoundlands Help Children to Read  -

Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D)  

by Suzanne Bidwell

All breeds are eligible to work with children in the R.E.AD (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program, but I'm sure you'll agree that Newfs are perfect for this work. They seem intuitively to sense they are doing something important; subsequently, they relax in the environment. They also make good pillows.

I find the atmosphere working in schools quite different from therapy dog work, even with the same two Newfs. Our regular therapy dog assignments with severely disabled preschool children are more upbeat. At therapy visits, we are always greeted by staff and children excited to see the beautiful, big dogs. Orca or Salty receive lots of loving and are asked to do entertaining tricks as well as therapy work. It is definitely more social and fun for me and for the dogs.

With the R.E.A.D program, we arrive usually at an elementary school, occasionally a middle school, where the children are occupied in their classes. We check into the office and are assigned to one teacher for the day. The teacher escorts us to a small room to meet the child who will be first to read with the dog.

newfoundland therapy dogSalty is a good role model for young readers (photo by Suzanne Bidwell)

I usually bring a few children's books about Newfs, and I think the favorite is Sailor, the Hangashore Newfoundland, probably because of the great illustrations. Often the teacher has already assigned a book for them to read that is appropriate for their reading level.

The children have various reading problems so are usually hesitant to start. I begin by introducing the dog and child by name. More often than not, the child looks a bit frightened, but not too much, because they know ahead of time they will be reading with the dog. Almost all the children look at the dog for approval, not at me. We are all on the floor during the session (oh, my oId bones), and depending on the child's level of comfort, most children will gradually move closer to the dog until they are touching. A few never do touch. It is interesting to watch the children relax and stumble over words less and less in just a 15-minute session.

newfoundland therapy dog
Abigail and Salty read a story about a Newf (photo by Suzanne Bidwell)

Like our dog training, everything the dog says to the child is positive. When it is over the children are usually smiling, wanting to pet the dog, but the teacher is often waiting with another child. The next week they are happy to see us again. These sessions are always more quiet and structured than any other volunteer work I have done in the past with the Newfs. Nevertheless, I feel it is important and beneficial work.

The R.E.A.D. program was started and is maintained by Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, Utah and is rapidly catching on nationwide. For example, in metropolitan Kansas City alone, requests from schools and libraries for certified dog and handler teams are impossible to fill. The program has inspired articles in over 100 publications around the United States, including Family Circle and Time magazines, as well as library and school journals, the Wall Street Journal, and m;yor TV network broadcasts. I agree with others who describe it as "magical" and "it simply works"

The purpose of R.E.A.D. is to improve the literary skills of children through reading with a dog. Some children are very sensitive to criticism, and if they feel embarrassed or judged, it affects their reading skills. In this program, we are trained to focus questions and problems on the dog, not the child. The child then feels they are helping the dog. For example, I might say to a child, "Salty has never heard that word before; can you tell her what it means?" All communication between the reader child and handler is done through the dog.

This program is implemented entirely in schools and libraries with all interactions pre-arranged by teachers or librarians. There are structured sessions, often 15 minutes in length, with only the child and dog and handler team present. The teacher or librarian organizes the sessions, but it defeats the purpose if a third person is present, especially a parent.

This structured interaction is one reason why the requirements for certification seem a bit stringent at first. Basically, the first requirement is to provide evidence of valid therapy team registration and liability insurance, such as the Delta Society. Then there are workshops and a comprehensive training manual to provide information necessary to pass a qualifying test. You are also required to sign a form agreeing to follow certain policies and procedures.

The manual is full of special ideas and aides to motivate the children. I made bookmarks and certificates with photos of Orca and Salty that say, "I read to Orca today" The great thing about Newfs is that even if they appear to fall asleep, you can ask them a question and they will open their eyes and look at the child. Salty has been known to snore loudly from time to time, which always brings a laugh. Suddenly reading becomes fun instead of a chore.

For more information on the program, check their Website. You might just find a new job for you and your Newf.


reprinted from NewfTide 2007






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