Sometimes Friendly Ears are Furry Ones

Stephanie Panza, 8, reads to Bo of Fidos for Freedom at Bond Mill.
Stephanie Panza, 8, reads to Bo of Fidos for Freedom at Bond Mill. "The dog is . . . a pleasant motivator," says Mary R. Jalongo, an education professor who has studied the effect of reading assistance dogs. (Andrea Bruce - Twp)
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

Patric Kelly, 8, was sitting on a chair at Bond Mill Elementary in Laurel, flanked by John Deitrich, a volunteer with Fidos for Freedom Inc., and Xander, a sweet-tempered male Australian shepherd wearing a jester's collar. Patric read from "Bully Trouble," a short story about two friends getting back at their tough-guy nemesis, Big Eddie, by allowing him to steal a sandwich doused in hot sauce.

Patric was soon to learn that revenge was a dish best served spicy.

"Then he took a big bite," Patric read aloud. "His face turned red. Tears rolled down his cheeks." Patric turned the page.

"Ow-ee!" Big Eddie and Patric cried as Xander listened placidly.

"When we first started working, he was a little quieter," Deitrich said of Patric. But there's something about canines that put young people at ease -- which is why Deitrich and his dogs were in the classroom in the first place.

Apart from being popular pets, dogs have been trusted helpmates since their domestication at least 15,000 years ago. (Archaeologists have found prehistoric graves where humans and dogs are buried together.) But using dogs for therapy has become more popular recently, with humans turning to their four-footed friends for help recovering from child abuse, dealing with long-term illnesses and, since at least 1999, teaching struggling children to read.

"We call it a bridge effect," said Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals and the organization's Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. "They seem to make the connection that lets people move ahead. . . . You bring a dog and suddenly they just start spilling things to the dog."

With reading, Klotz said, dogs are the best kind of audience. "Nobody is great at reading aloud. It's adults' greatest fear -- public speaking. It's really terrifying for a lot of kids in school. A lot of times when you get called on, what you know just disappears out of your brain," she said. With dogs, "there's nothing frightening, there's nothing intimidating, there's nobody putting undue pressure on them. 'The dog won't laugh at me; nobody tells me I'm stupid.' There's this totally accepting, nonjudgmental presence."

Intermountain Therapy Animals, based in Utah, is among the first and largest groups doing this kind of therapy in a structured way, with 1,300 teams providing services in all states except the Dakotas. Many other groups, such as Fidos for Freedom, perform assistance and therapy work locally.

Fidos for Freedom, which serves the Washington and Baltimore areas, works with traditional service dogs, such as those that help the blind, as well as therapy dogs. A large part of the program is having dogs visit people in hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. Through their Dogs Educating and Assisting Readers program, volunteers help kids in Howard and Prince George's counties learn to read. In Howard, parents bring their children to libraries to work with the dogs. In Prince George's, the dogs visit Bond Mill every Thursday during recess.

"It's just phenomenal," said Noreen Javornik, volunteer coordinator at Bond Mill. "What it actually does is that it gives them an extra 45 minutes a week of concentrated reading, with a dog being an incentive and not having other children around. . . . When you start, you're working on reading Dr. Seuss books, and they advance quite rapidly."

Klotz said there wasn't much quantitative evidence that dogs actually help children read because testing standards vary from state to state. But some children who had trouble reading have advanced as many as four grade levels in a single year, she said.

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