washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Maryland > Pr. George's

Struggling Readers' Best Friends

Therapy Dogs Listen, Bark and 'Don't Judge'

By Jessica Medinger Nelson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page HO03

Derckwin Penate, a fifth-grader at Stevens Forest Elementary School, walked into the East Columbia branch of the Howard County library system and slipped the dog-shaped name tag over his head. Then he chose a book from the reading cart and plopped down on the blanket next to Bacchus, a German shepherd mix .

"I can read to the dogs and they can bark," said Derckwin, who speaks Spanish fluently but has difficulty reading out loud to his classmates. He recently took part in a Saturday morning program at the library that pairs "therapy dogs" with elementary school children to help them improve their reading skills.

Jane Stiegman and Glenn Stiegman and their whippets, Topaz and Celine, work with readers Rodney Bratcher, 8, center left, and Lennet Penate, 8. (Photos Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)

"I pretend the persons are like the dogs," he said.

The program, a partnership between the Howard County Library and Fidos for Freedom, is called Dogs Educating and Assisting Readers, or DEAR. It involves 13 dogs, ranging from a small dachshund to a large Samoyed.

Based in Laurel, the nonprofit Fidos for Freedom provides volunteers who train "assistance dogs" to help people who are physically impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, and therapy dogs, which visit residents in health care facilities.

Laurie Hardy, a volunteer coordinator with Fidos, started the DEAR program in 2000 at a Prince George's County school near her home in Riverdale Park. The project was ended at that school, however, because of space constraints. About the same time, Howard library officials approached Fidos, and DEAR was started in the spring of 2002 in Howard, with one session of about 10 children at the East Columbia branch.

Since then, it has since grown to a series of 45-minute Saturday morning sessions at the East Columbia branch and the Glenwood, Savage and Central Columbia branches. More than 80 children from 12 elementary schools participated in the fall semester, which ended Saturday. Another session is expected to start in January.

Reading specialists at elementary schools recommend children who could benefit the most. The therapy dogs and their adult owners are then matched with a child for one-on-one reading time. But Hardy said the children rarely pay attention to the dogs' owners.

"They read to the dog," she said, as her 7-year-old border collie, Spinner, whined in the background. "It's very cool for them. It's very magical."

Rewards and incentives, such as bookmarks, are given to students as they improve. Each child also receives a certificate and a photo of himself with the dog.

During a recent session at the East Columbia branch, a collie sprawled on the floor and closed her eyes. Nearby two whippets sat with their heads turned toward the children reading to them. The young voices and an occasional bark were among the few sounds in the library.

Hardy said more than half of the 130 children in the program last year met their school's reading goals. Reading specialists reported that participants began raising their hands more often in class and taking a more active interest in reading, Hardy said.

Elizabeth McCague, 11, participated in the DEAR program when she was a third-grader. Since then, she's been a volunteer and helped participants select their books or shared treats her mother baked for the group. Elizabeth said she always liked to read but was shy about reading out loud.

"I think kids don't feel comfortable reading to adults," said Elizabeth, who lives in Columbia. "It gives them more hope when they are reading to a dog because dogs don't judge them.

"I would come out of the room so happy I read to the dogs," she said. "It gives kids confidence."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company