Dogs help kids read in new Rockland program

Reading has gone to the dogs — in a good way.

Therapy dogs that assist children in reading, from beginner to more advanced levels, are available through a new Rockland County-based program called R.E.A.D. or Reading Education Assistance Dogs.

Man’s best friend has been tapped in this free program to help children get comfortable with reading and develop an enjoyment of  this lifelong skill. Kids in the program practice reading to a selected dog, for his ears only, in a 10-minute-session.

At the Nyack Library, R.E.A.D. Director Candace Robinson explained the process and made the introductions to 7-year old Buster, a Labrador Retriever, new to the program. “Their job is to give comfort, bring joy and happiness to people,” says Robinson of the therapy dogs. Also on hand was 9-year-old Paco, a Chihuahua-mix who sat with Berger as she was preparing for a new group to arrive.

Of Buster, Berger says, “He’s an enthusiastic dog that loves attention and being petted unlike service dogs that are not able to because they are working.”

Temperament is important.

These therapy dogs go through a series of 23 tests before being cleared to work in schools and libraries and in the company of school age children.

“To be a therapy dog they have to be healthy and able to follow commands and stay calm. When we go to a school there might be six to 12 kids that want to pet the dog,” says Robinson.

R.E.A.D. Director George Berger says there are 12 active teams in five Rockland County schools and three libraries.

“I retired to do this,” says Berger. “It’s the most gratifying thing; it’s important and you’re helping these kids.”

The dogs visit Haverstraw Elementary, BOCES/Hilltop School in Haverstraw, West Haverstraw Elementary, McArthur-Barr Middle School and St. Dominick’s School in Blauvelt.

R.E.A.D.  is affiliated with the national Utah-based program Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) started in 1993 with a mission of improving the human-animal bond. The R.E.A.D program began in 1999 and this local chapter started in 2015.

Libraries in Nyack, New City and Blauvelt also participate in the reading sessions for 10 to 15 children; during a one-hour span, each private one-on-one session features the dog, a book and a student. Students interested in the library programs can sign up on a first-come basis.

The private sessions eliminate embarrassment if a child misses a word or fumbles pronunciation while still giving them practice in front of an audience, in this case, the audience includes Buster or Paco.

“The library sets up the program and pick the books. It boosts confidence, helps with motor skills and it’s fun,” says Robinson.

The program targets students of all levels of reading using picture books and more difficult material. Not surprisingly, students come back month after month.

Berger says being part of this all-volunteer team is rewarding. “We love the kids and the dogs plus we love reading;  it all comes together,” he says.

For the team, the end goal is getting children motivated and comfortable reading along with getting students accustomed to these furry friends.

“A lot of children don’t like to read, but when they see the dog, it changes everything,” Robinson says. “They are excited and it helps them get rid of their fear. This is personal. There’s no other child there to judge them.”

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