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Newfoundlands Help Children to Read  -

Sunshine Friends - Kids Reading to Dogs

by Beth Sell

Our Newfoundlands, Tickle and Zena, are volunteers in the Kids Reading to Dogs program of Sunshine Friends, Inc., (SFI) of Syracuse, New York. When Ron and I put on their "uniforms" (bright yellow vests), they get excited, and they usually whine in anticipation as we drive into the parking lot of the library or school where we will be working. This year we participated weekly at a public school and they wiggled with delight when the kids ex- claimed, "The Newfs are here."

Sunshine Friends is a local animal assisted therapy/animal assisted activity group. SFI has its own certification and testing program, provides insurance coverage for volunteers, and requires regular health certificates for the dogs. SFI provides venues for volunteering based on volunteers' interests and what situation is best for a specific dog. Areas of service often include hospitals, rehabilitation units, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and reading programs, etc.

newfoundland reading therapy dog
Tickle and a young boy read together at the library.

Youth reading programs are fairly new to SFI, but these programs, in which children read to dogs, are becoming increasingly popular. The atmosphere for reading programs is informal and relaxed, and dogs may be required to go through additional screening to make certain they have the right temperament for this type of setting. Sunshine Friends, Inc., volunteers are bringing their dogs to a growing number of libraries and schools. The premise is that children have the opportunity to improve their literary skills by reading out loud to a nonjudgmental canine ear. If the child reading makes a mistake, he/ she has no fear of criticism from peers or adults. The canine presence, at the very least, provides motivation for reading.

newfoundland reading therapy dog
Zena listens intently to a story at the library as part of the Kid's Reading to Dogs program.

Sometimes the reading program becomes an animal assisted activity when a teacher sets reading goals for each child and documents the child's level of reading before, after, and during ongoing sessions with the dogs.

When sites request visitation from the dogs, SFI volunteers communicate with the sites to determine their needs and expectations. When a site accepts visitations, it agrees to follow the SFI policies. SFI provides a visitation schedule, and each site has a group leader, who submits a visitation report after each visit to insure that any concerns can be addressed.

The SFI certification process is three-fold: evaluation, orientation, and supervised visits. In the evaluation, the dog is tested on basic control exercises; greeting a stranger; meeting an unfamiliar dog; exposure to wheelchairs, crutches, and persons with abnormal gaits; reaction to loud, unusual noises; and the ability to ignore food left on the floor. Some sites require additional evaluations, such as an AKC Canine Good Citizen test.

Orientation acquaints new volunteers with the program and prepares them for what they might encounter on their visits.

On the first supervised visit, the volunteer visits a nursing facility alone without their dog and shadows the volunteer( s) at their site. On visit two, the volunteer attends with his dog, but without the presence of the regular dogs in order to see the new dog's reaction to the site and its smells, sounds, and activities. Visit three is the last supervised visit and the new dog attends with the regular volunteers and their dogs to assess the interaction with other unfamiliar dogs in this setting. The group leader may choose to attend without her/his dog to focus attention on the new volunteer team. If all these steps are successfully completed, the team will be assigned to a facility for regular visitations.

The dedicated leaders of this organization are very accessible. If you have any questions about starting a similar program in your area and want information, contact SFI.



reprinted from NewfTide 2007






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