The teacher’s warning was clear: This student needed significant help, perhaps more than a therapy dog could provide.
A recent transfer with a debilitating stutter, the middle-schooler was nervous and withdrawn, and his reading skills weren’t strong. He was having trouble just communicating, never mind keeping up with the curriculum.
But something changed after he sat down on the floor next to Lynne Robinson and Boo, her golden retriever. “When this child talked to Boo, there was no stutter. As he read to Boo, there was no stutter,” recalls Robinson. “My dog doesn’t care if you stutter or how well you can read or how long it takes you—he’s there to spend time with you.”
Robinson is the executive director and founder of PAWS for People, a Delaware-based nonprofit that provides one-on-one pet therapy. PAWS for Reading is just one of the group’s many services—more than 600 human-canine PAWS teams also visit hospitals, hospices, and rehab centers. But the reading program is making a big impact in the mid-Atlantic region’s schools and libraries.
“When kids are reading to adults or other children in a classroom, they get self-conscious and nervous,” says Robinson. “All the dog does is look into your eyes and say, ‘This is great. Keep reading, keep petting me, this is wonderful.’ Pet therapy relaxes the child and allows them to be fully who they are. It’s magical to watch.”
Science backs up the magic. Numerous studies have shown that therapy-dog programs improve children’s attitudes about reading and boost reading skills. And when it comes to literacy, the stakes are high. According to research by the National Center for Education Statistics, of adults with the lowest literacy levels, 43% live in poverty. Children of parents with low literacy levels have a 72% chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.
In New York City, the Department of Education has teamed up with New York Therapy Animals. The nonprofit is the area’s official affiliate of R.E.A.D., a pioneering literacy program developed by Intermountain Therapy Animals and offered in all 50 states. It serves a variety of struggling readers, from children with learning disabilities to those on the autism spectrum to students who have anxiety about reading in a group setting.
“It makes a big difference in children who are reading below grade level—we’re really seeing the reading scores improve,” says Nancy George-Michalson, executive director of New York Therapy Animals. “But the program is also amazing for kids who are a little shy or who are afraid to talk out loud—they gain confidence and self-esteem by reading to the dogs.”
When out in the field, George-Michalson works alongside her poodle, Melody. Like Boo the golden retriever, Melody isn’t concerned about test scores, which helps children relax. “A dog isn’t judgmental,” says George-Michalson. “He doesn’t care if you mispronounce a word or if you don’t know what a word means. He’s not there to test you, only to be supportive and comforting.”
Not every dog is cut out to be a therapy dog. Prospective pooches for both PAWS and New York Therapy Animals are carefully screened and go through mandatory training to ensure that they’re prepared to work with children. While some skills can be taught, others are intuitive.
“Our dogs seem to know which kid needs a hug, which kid needs his face licked, and when it’s time to just go lay at the feet and be a calming presence,” says Robinson. “It’s a very simple but elegant thing.”
The children, in turn, appreciate having such an understanding companion. “That connection immediately changes the atmosphere in the room,” says George-Michalson. “The child is less stressed, less anxious, and finally able to relax and read—it’s beautiful to watch.”