- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

Rachel Haslett has read all 29 installments of the “Secrets of Droon” fantasy series and is turning her attention to Harry Potter.

The 10-year-old Gaithersburg girl wasn’t always such a bookworm.

Her reading habits changed courtesy of a program that paired Rachel with Sophie, an adorable mixed-breed dog known as a cavachon. Sophie and Rachel meet every other week at the Quince Orchard Library in Gaithersburg to read together. Or rather, Rachel reads and Sophie listens.

“It’s helped her follow through on the reading process,” says Rachel’s mother, Martha Haslett.

Proponents of animal-assisted reading programs contend that children feel less pressure reading to a dog than to a teacher or room full of students. It’s also a more enjoyable experience. What child’s face doesn’t light up when a calm, friendly dog nuzzles close to them?

Programs like the one operating in Gaithersburg can be found across the country, often under the banner of the Intermountain Therapy Animals’ Reading Education Assistance Dogs model.

Locally, National Capital Therapy Dogs Inc. (NCTD) brings children and canines together to improve reading skills.

A sign reading, “Shhhh, please. I am reading to Sophie,” stands before a well-lit room at the Quince Orchard Library. Inside, Rachel and Sophie are seated together on a lime green bean bag. Sophie lies right next to Rachel, so close her nose nearly touches the book.

Rachel reads the text smoothly, with confidence. Sophie barely moves, staying tucked into the space between Rachel’s left hip and the bean bag.

Seated next to them is John Burrows, Sophie’s owner and a volunteer with the program.

Mr. Burrows works with NCTD, a nonprofit volunteer organization that brings animals to libraries, nursing homes and other facilities in the Washington-Baltimore area.

It might seem simple to pair a quiet dog up with a child, but Mr. Burrows says NCTD volunteers undergo training to administer the reading program as well as other outreach efforts such as hospice visits courtesy of the national Delta Society. That group brings animals and humans together for a variety of helpful services such as rehabilitation.

“We’re all tested as a team, according to the requirements of the Delta Society and re-evaluated every second year,” he says.

That means both master and pet must pass muster.

“It’s designed to demonstrate that the team has the right kind of attributes for visiting a hospital or other institution,” he says. Such tests include some role playing and letting several people pet the dog at once to make sure the animal can tolerate such activity.

Mr. Burrows’ 5-year-old dog has been working with NCTD for four years. Her gentle demeanor and patience makes her an ideal pet for struggling readers.

“You have to have a suitable dog,” says Mr. Burrows. The dogs must get along with people and other animals and have basic obedience training. “The dog has to be willing to lie still for anything up to two hours. A hyperactive dog won’t be suitable.”

Mr. Burrows acknowledges the difficulty in tracking a child’s reading improvement with the program. When progress does occur, he doesn’t necessarily pin it all on Sophie’s handiwork.

“We do try to get as much feedback of a quantitative nature as we can,” he says, adding that sometimes the improvements can be seen in a child’s body language.

“One young reader was clutching at her clothes the first time, so I said, ‘Why don’t you stroke Sophie instead?’ Now, she just sits down and reads,” he says.

Patricia S. Tate, associate professor of elementary education at George Washington University and director of its Office of Laboratory Experiences, says reading aloud is good for children because it allows them to use the language arts to express themselves.

Plus, children have long been encouraged to read to their stuffed animals for similar benefits, Mrs. Tate says.

Gabrielle Miller, vice president of literacy and education programs with the children’s literacy group Reading Is Fundamental, says these programs can be “tremendously helpful” for youngsters struggling with some aspect of reading.

“Reading is a very, very complex thing,” Ms. Miller says. “It deals with how brains work, and then there is decoding and comprehension.”

Reading in the classroom often puts students in an unflattering spotlight, especially for the child who isn’t comfortable with his or her skills.

“Kids are all pretty mean to each other,” Ms. Miller says. “It can be very difficult to be the only one in the class who can’t do something.”

A dog-based reading program can reap some benefits, but it shouldn’t be the sole component of a child’s reading education.

Children will make mistakes when they read, and Fido isn’t equipped to make the necessary correction, she says.

Besides, the bigger benefit may lie in the attitude such programs foster in children.

“Many, many program out there are fixated on helping kids with their reading skills,” she says. “There is a place in literacy education for the joy of reading.”

Victoria Bernardo-Hill, whose 9-year-old son, Thomas, reads alongside Sophie, says today’s children have plenty of reasons not to pick up a book, be it the lure of video games or time spent on the computer.

“Reading a book competes with all these other choices,” she says.

So, when the reading specialist at her son’s school, Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, recommended he pair up with a dog like Sophie, she jumped at the opportunity.

Thomas is a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Bernardo-Hill says.

Young Thomas began the reading program last fall, and it has allowed him read silently rather than having to read everything aloud, Ms. Bernardo-Hill says.

“It’s helped his confidence,” she says. “Having a nonthreatening environment — it’s not his mom, not his teacher — it takes the pressure off.”

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