Family Magazine

Telling Tails: How Dogs Help Kids Use Their Words

By David13676 @dogspired

LiaTen-year-old Golden Retriever Lia is a good listener with a seeming infinite capacity for cuddles and colorful picture books with short words.

This makes Lia an ideal READ dog — as in Reading Education Assistance Dog.

Eight-year-old Nathanael Schoenhals is in French immersion at Agincourt Road Public School and his mom Kristen was concerned that he was losing his ability to read English.

Put Nathanael and Lia together and you’ve got an informal reading class away from classroom and peer pressures where kids, often intimidated by their own reading difficulties, clam up.

“It helps me feel like I’ve got a friend to read to,” said Nathanael, who has had several sessions with Lia and other dogs since last fall. “It helps me learn.”

Ottawa’s READ program is enjoying a growth spurt and of the 100 or so therapy dog teams (dog and handler) now working in the city, 20 of them are helping children — most with reading difficulties — to put words together and snuggle up to a dog in the process.

The dogs come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a miniature Dachshund to a St. Bernard, but share a common temperament of calm, patience and smarts.

“If kids haven’t grasped reading by the time they get to grade three things can fall apart,” said Julie Davies, READ coordinator. “This program is about getting kids excited about reading. The whole point is to take the pressure off the kid and put it on the dog.”

The dog handlers, two of whom were being assessed at the Centennial branch of the Ottawa Public Library at the weekend, are trained to detect what difficulties children might be having during a reading session and speak to them “through” the dog.

During the 15 minutes sessions, the handler will pick up on mistakes or stumbles and tell the child that the dog is having difficulty understanding this word or that, said Davies.

“The kids feel they are helping the dogs,” she said.

As part of the wider program, Ottawa’s 100 therapy dogs do varied work during visits to more than 1,500 people at seniors’ residences, Ottawa Hospital’s Rehabilitation Centre and almost all area hospitals including the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).

Aside from that infinite capacity for cuddling, Lia has a special party trick when she’s visiting at CHEO.

“If a kid sneezes, she’ll run and get a Kleenex,” said Davies. “So the kids sneeze a lot.”

The READ program has two more library sessions planned for the public — May 25 and June 22.— and gearing up for a slate of summer programs that include more library sessions.

Four dog-handler teams have just finished a program for engineering students at Carleton University looking to de-stress during exams.

All the therapy dog services are in high demand but largely because of lack of funds, there’s a waiting list of 70 organizations — some wanting to start the program, others wanting more sessions — and a waiting list of potential volunteer dog and owner teams waiting to be trained.

Therapy Dogs is a registered charity with a large insurance bill and a budget of around $40,000, the bulk of which comes from a private foundation and United Way workplace designation campaigns that this year raised $13,000.

Volunteers use their own dogs but there are rigorous requirements that involve a home inspection, an initial vet checkup and annual physicals.

“Some vets, bless their souls, give our volunteers a discount because they see value in the program,” said Margot Montgomery, a volunteer board member who heads the Therapy Dogs community outreach and fundraising committee.

~ Courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen

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