Children read aloud to dogs

December 27, 2012

Sean Sullivan chose a book, sat down on the library rug and explained to Tavish that he was going to read him a mystery about a hidden treasure.

Tavish, never one to turn down a good story, wagged his short red tail and put his head on Sean’s knee.

On the other side of the room, tucked into the back of the children’s section of an Alexandria library, Jonathan Mendez was reading with a Spanish accent to a black Portuguese water dog named Skipper. A golden retriever was sprawled out in another corner, and a tiny toy poodle sat up, bright-eyed, as a girl read to him about an alligator.

“If you're reading aloud in school to a whole class, you might be nervous,” said Sean, who’s 8. “But the dogs are really here to listen.”

A growing number of libraries and some schools in the region are inviting volunteers to bring their dogs in to help children learn, hoping the pets will calm children who are struggling, excite those who are bored and help kids equate reading with fun.

At the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library in Alexandria on a recent night, there was a waiting list for “Paws to Read,” with children clutching books outside the room hoping to get a turn.

Some had learning disabilities, and their parents wanted them to practice in a nonjudgmental place. Some were learning English and liked reading without having their pronunciation corrected with every word. Some were shy about speaking up in class. And some, like Sean and his sister Mary, love reading and had been looking forward all week to reading to Tavish, a Hungarian vizsla.

“They have so much fun,” librarian Ginny Rawls said. “The kids just light up. It’s really a wonderful program. I can’t say enough good things about it.”

There must be some downsides.

“Well,” Rawls paused to consider. “Shedding?”

It took a while for Cynthia Power — a teacher at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington County and a volunteer with People Animals Love, or PAL, a D.C. nonprofit group that brings well-mannered, friendly dogs to nursing homes and other places — to get programs started in libraries. She explained the idea at various branches a few years ago and even left business cards from her small, fluffy dog, Humphrey. “But no bites,” she said.

She has heard from skeptics: “ ‘This is all we need — people teaching their children to read by reading to a dog.’ ” But it’s not about teaching at all, she said.

“Children never get a chance to read without someone telling them they mispronounced a word or skipped part of the story,” Power said. “We don’t give children that chance to just enjoy reading.”

Marcia Invernizzi, a reading-education professor at the University of Virginia, said reading to dogs won’t, by itself, make a child a better reader. But she liked the idea of motivating children, and she noted several potential benefits. Not least, reading aloud is crucial for beginning readers, she said, because children sound out letters and recognize words when they hear them. The more teachers and parents find ways for them to enjoy doing that, the better.

There are now lots of places in the region where children can read to dogs, and Rene Wallis, the head of PAL, can’t find enough volunteers to fill all the requests she gets from librarians.

Not every dog is cut out for it: They can’t be biters, barkers, jumpers or growlers.

But you can have a licker. That’s Tavish. As Sean read “The Maze of Bones,” Tavish would jump up every so often and unleash a long, pink tongue. Sean would giggle, dry his face with his sleeve and read on.

Valeria Gonzalez, 7, liked the little dog she was with “because she cares a lot and listens very carefully.”

After a while, Rawls came in to let another set of children have a chance. Binyam Gebremeskel read with an Ethiopian accent and patted Lucy, a poodle wearing a red, velvet cape. A girl brought a story about a dog to Skipper, whose owner noted, “Very topical!”

One child didn’t show up for her 15-minute slot, so Sean curled up on the floor with the golden retriever, AnnaBelle, while 10-year-old Diego Diaz-Tello brought “Johnny Tremain” to Tavish.

Some children snuggle with the dogs, some sit cross-legged across from them and then turn the book around after reading each page, showing the dog the pictures as a teacher would to a class. Diego, a smart boy with autism, found a small chair and sat down rigidly, not looking at the volunteer or the book, frowning across the room at a blank wall.

He doesn’t like to read at home, his mother, Julissa Tello, said, but he seemed to relax when they brought in a therapy dog once a week to Ivymount School. He became more open to trying new things and completing his classwork. So his mom thought he might click with Paws to Read.

After a long silence, Tavish’s owner, Tracy Baetz, asked Diego whether he wanted to give Tavish a treat.

Diego smiled as Tavish licked it out of his hands, and he told Baetz that he has a beagle at home. He began reading, stopping now and then to ask questions about Tavish or to rub his soft ears. Tavish’s little tail thumped.

When Diego was finished, he asked his mom if they could come back soon.

Owners stood up, grabbed leashes. Children gathered armfuls of books to check out at the front desk. Tavish jumped up, stretched and licked Baetz.

Rawls looked at Sean and started laughing. He was covered in fur, and beaming. “I see you’re really taking the program home with you,” she said.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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