“I feel relaxed when I am reading to a dog because I am having fun,” said a third-grader in Solano County, California, when asked how she felt about the All Ears Reading Program of the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). A similar program, the Tail-Wagging Tutors, will be coming to the Phoenicia Library in late September.
“When children are learning to read, some just get it, and others struggle,” said Dr. Laurel Olexa, a psychologist who is certified to work with therapy dogs. “They’ve discovered that if a struggling reader sits and reads to a dog, which is totally nonjudgmental, they get practice. The dog isn’t going to correct their pronunciation or criticize their rate of reading. As they continue to read to the dog, they gain confidence and get more practice.”
Olexa, a Boiceville resident, and Jennifer Christie of Shandaken, also certified for dog therapy, will bring their dogs, Oz, Opie, and Sturgis, to the Phoenicia Library on Saturday, September 19 at 1 p.m. for a get-acquainted gathering, followed by Monday afternoon reading sessions starting September 21 at 3:30 p.m.
“A dog is not a substitute for reading teacher,” cautioned Olexa. “A child who’s struggling with reading does need to learn different strategies, since their brain is wired differently. But they also need practice.”
Students in ARF’s program were examined in a study conducted by the University of California-Davis Veterinary Medicine Extension. Third-graders who read aloud to dogs for 15 minutes once a week, over ten weeks, showed a 12 percent improvement in reading aloud skills, as measured by the Oral Text Reading for Comprehension Test. A control group showed no improvement, while homeschoolers in the program demonstrated a 30 percent increase in their scores.
When Olexa worked for the Saugerties school district, she brought Opie and Oz to reading classes for children with autism. One little girl liked reading to Opie so much, she was already picking out a book for the next session as Olexa was leaving.
Christie and Olexa gave Phoenicia Library director Liz Potter a list of children’s books about dogs, some of which have been ordered for the library. “Kids seem to think dogs want to read a story about a dog,” explained Christie. “And it makes it easier for them to pick out a book.”
“The dogs love the contact with the kids,” added Olexa. “They’re very social, and they love attention. They will even sit there and look at the book.”
Opie, nine, and Oz, eight, are cockapoos (a cross between cocker spaniel and poodle). Christie’s dog, Sturgis, is a ten-year-old Boston terrier. All three are certified working therapy dogs, veterans of many visits to nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. Olexa used to bring Opie and Oz to Saugerties High School once a week. As classes were changing, they would trot through the crowded halls with complete confidence. In talk therapy sessions, she said, “They were my assistants. But sometimes I was the assistant. If a kid was distraught to the point where they wouldn’t talk to anybody, we’d sit down on the floor. They’d have the two dogs on their lap, and I wouldn’t say a word. Pretty soon, the story would start coming out. Kids got very attached to them.”
Olexa has observed that therapy dogs seem to sense what’s needed at the moment. “If they need to be quiet and calm, that’s what they are, and they can also be happy and perky.” She had a blind student last summer at Brookside School, now part of Ulster-Greene ARC. At a first encounter with Oz, the dog allowed the little girl to feel her eyes, ears, nose, and legs, without moving a muscle.
Since children can sometimes be intimidated by dogs, the Tail-Wagging Tutors will come to the library on Saturday, September 19, from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., so kids can get to know them. The dogs will demonstrate tricks, including double high fives, crawling, ball-catching. An agility course of jumps, tunnels, seesaws, and weave poles will be set up in the fenced-in library yard, and children will be invited to lead the dogs through the course. All three dogs are national agility champions, spending many weekends on the Canine Performance Events circuit.
On Monday afternoons from September 21 through November 9, 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., the dogs will be at the library, 48 Main Street, Phoenicia, for reading sessions.