--- Issued April 10, 2016

The "Therapy Dog" reading program, first featured in the Fall 2010 Authority News & Views newsletter, is still going strong.  The program was featured in the Sunday, April 10, edition of the Erie Times-News under the headline "Telling Tales" and was written by Kara Murphy, an Erie freelance writer:


By KARA MURPHY - Contributing writer

Anaya Williams opened the book "Colorful Day" and began to read. Ellie, a 6-year-old golden retriever with chocolate brown eyes, looked on, watching the 10-year-old Edison Elementary School student as she turned pages. Anaya reached out one hand to stroke the dog's silky red fur as she read. The girl's eyes, though, remained glued to the page.

Ellie was one of eight certified therapy dogs who sat -- or lay -- in a ring on a rug in the Mead's Children Storytime Room at Blasco Library while children from the John E. Horan Garden Apartments YMCA Kids Club program sprawled around them, each reading a book out loud to a dog.

The kids from the program have been coming to Blasco once a month for six years to read to the dogs, which are all trained through Therapy Dogs United.

Anaya loves the monthly outing.

"The dogs just listen to us," she said.

That's exactly the point of bringing together the kids and canines, said Pat van Zandt, executive director of Therapy Dogs United.

"These dogs have nonjudgmental ears," she said. "They don't care if you're self-conscious, if you're a struggling or new reader, if you have to sound out a word. They just listen. It's very basic -- we're not curing cancer or anything. But it helps these kids."

Studies back her up:

- A 2010 study by the University of California-Davis Veterinary Medicine Extension found third-graders who read to dogs once a week for 15 minutes improved their fluency by 12 percent over a 10-week period.

- A second study, this one done in 2009 by a researcher from National Louis University, analyzed the effectiveness of a program that included children in Chicago Public Schools. The researcher found students who participated in a reading program with dogs showed a 20 percent improvement in oral reading fluency over the course of a school year, as compared to a group who didn't participate in the program.

Aaliyah Williams, a second-grader at Edison and a member of the Kids Club, petted a cocker spaniel named Nicholas as she chatted with his owner. She had read three books to three different dogs during the hourlong event.

"I like to read," she said. "It's fun to read. And it's good to read because it gives you lots of information. The dogs help me read because they listen to me, and they're quiet."

Focusing on books

Cherie Kinem, the supervisor of the Kids Club, said she thinks the dogs help the kids concentrate on their task. She notices a marked change in the children's demeanor when interacting with the dogs.

"The dogs calm them down," she said. "They really help them focus. I don't know why that happens, but it really does."

Sure enough, while there is a cacophony of sound in the Storytime Room, it's only because each of the children is reading a book. They're all on task, with an attentive dog -- and dog owner -- at their side.

Debbie Whitman, who owns golden retriever Ellie, said she's witnessed the same effect on two of her own children who have been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

"They read to Ellie every day," she said of her kids. "They always sit and focus when they're reading with her. They don't feel judged or intimidated by her. They just love her."

Animals love books, too

While all of the dogs that participate in the Blasco programs are trained therapy dogs with attentive and loving owners, that certainly isn't a prerequisite for kids reading to dogs or any other animal.

In fact, local shelters also invite groups of children to read.

The Humane Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania offers a monthly program called Sit Stay and Read, which is a story time hour attended by a shelter dog or cat -- and once even a bunny.

Because You Care animal rescue holds a weekly Tales for Tails Summer Reading Program while kids are out of school, during which kids are invited to read to cats in their homelike setting and dogs in their kennels. The exact days of the 2016 program have not yet been set.

The A.N.N.A. Shelter always welcomes groups who want to read to their dogs and cats at the shelter, but it doesn't have a regular program, said Director Ruth Thompson.

"It's always great to see the children interact on that level," she said. "And the animals soak up the attention."

Benefits extend beyond reading skills

Jamarion Petty, a first-grader at Edison Elementary School, is a member of the Kids Club. He speaks with a lisp, thanks to the six teeth he's currently missing. He flashes his gaptoothed smile frequently as he talks about the dogs.

"It's fun because you get to learn to read big words," he said. "It's awesome, too, because you get to give the dogs treats and walk them, and some of them do tricks."

One of the kids' favorite dogs is Mya, a 9-year-old Staffordshire terrier who, at owner Norma Smith's command, "break dances" by wriggling on his back on the rug -- much to the amusement of the children.

"That was adorable," one of the kids squeals.

"I honestly think the dogs enjoy this just as much as the kids," Smith said later. "It's a great way for kids who are nervous around dogs or don't like dogs to learn that not all dogs are mean, can be good company and are good listeners."