Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kids would rather read to dogs

Jane Talbot's struggles with dyslexia inspired her to participate in the program that has children reading to dogs.

When Jane Talbot was a tiny girl, visions of monsters under the bed weren’t what she feared most.

It was words on a page that frightened her.

Jane was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was six. The prospect of trying to read in front of other kids was paralyzing. The sentences looked like a jumbled mess. In her mind’s eye, words jumped ahead of their proper place, causing her to read them out of order.

“I had a fear of reading out loud – it was intimidating and terrifying to me,” said Jane, who has been volunteering at Whatcom Humane Society (WHS) for ten years.

Jane is 41 now, but the memory of that fear is still fresh. As if she were still attempting to decipher text while standing in front of a classroom of kids. Or attending college, where a creative administrator skirted Jane through the red tape by categorizing her as a visually-impaired student. That way, she was allowed to access textbooks on tape. By hearing and reading the words simultaneously, her comprehension increased.

And she graduated.

Jane’s experience motivated her to help other kids struggling to read. This past fall, she and her Labrador-Shepherd cross Betty participated for the first time in the four-year-old WHS reading program Dog Day Afternoon.

“I thought I could help kids in the program break down their barriers,” Jane said. “It’s so rewarding to see these kids reading to the dogs.”

Betty and other listening dogs around North America work miracles for children’s literacy. The dogs provide an attentive, non-judgmental audience for young readers. They don’t criticize or laugh. They don’t act bored, hurried and impatient. They are there just to listen.

Even kids who know how to read flock to these dogs just for fun, growing their vocabulary and public speaking skills in the process. But the greatest beneficiaries by far are those who have obstacles to reading and speaking.

Golf great Tiger Woods is one famous example. Tiger used to stutter. Before facing a human audience, he would practice speeches and presentations in front of his dog, Boom. He was building confidence with the help of his dog. Eventually he realized that if he could do it for Boom, he could also win the people over.

“Adults can be intimidating – the dogs are not judgmental,” says WHS outreach director Laura Clark.

The popular WHS Dog Day Afternoon program moves from library to library in Whatcom County for one-month stints every spring and fall. There is usually a waiting list. During the afterschool hours of 4 to 6 p.m., kids start cycling in for 30-minute sessions to meet with the dogs and their guardians. Many kids had younger siblings in tow.

This past fall, I attended a session at the Fairhaven library. Every half hour, a new batch of kids crowded at the doorway in anticipation, clearly excited for their turn to come. One little girl who didn’t want to miss her chance hobbled in with a broken leg that sported a bright pink cast.

Kids develop a love of reading while bonding with their listening dog.

“I like reading to dogs because I like animals. I really like reading and I really like dogs,” said eight-year-old Fern Beach.

Parent Tonya Lockman brought her eight-year-old son and kindergarten-aged daughter to the Fairhaven library.

“We try to make it every fall and spring because it’s hysterical fun,” Lockman said. “It was a big deal when my daughter could read to her own dog. She was very proud and excited.”

On this night, the listeners at the Fairhaven library are all rescue dogs. The program has an unexpected spin-off effect for the shelter – it piques a kid’s interest in animals, particularly rescued animals. So much so that some drop by the WHS shelter with their parents to adopt cats and dogs, Clark said. Kids also shed their fear of dogs.

“These dogs are kid tested and approved,” Clark said. “This gives the child a chance to learn about dogs with friendly animals.”

The librarian watching the session beamed as children read to their chosen dogs.

“It fulfills librarians’ dreams to see kids reading,” said Donna Grasdock, Fairhaven library specialist for the Bellingham Public Library. “It almost makes me cry.”

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