Anyone who has spent time around dogs knows that “Man’s Best Friend,” get their nickname honestly. Aside from companionship, however, dogs are proving through working therapy projects that they have the power to help improve children’s reading skills, among other accomplishments.
For kids learning to read, having a friendly audience in the form of a dog has proven to be an effective way to increase reading comprehension and confidence.
“It is really wonderful to see the children blossom with a Reading Dog as their mentor,” said Karen Prichard, the owner of Cherry Point Dog Training Center. Prichard coordinates the local Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.®) Program, which currently operates in schools, after-school programs, and public libraries.
“The R.E.A.D.® program is fairly new to the area in the last few years,” Prichard said. R.E.A.D.® originated in Salt Lake City with a program of Intermountain Therapy Animals. While it sounds simple enough—the dogs sit and listen—both dog and handler must go through two phases of training to be a certified R.E.A.D.® team.
Prichard specializes in training dogs and their handlers to become certified Pet Therapy teams, and utilizes trained volunteers for several programs at children’s hospitals, Ronald McDonald House, assisted living homes, and as R.E.A.D.® animals.
“The kids are pretty serious about sitting down and reading, they like to read to the dogs,” said Prichard, who sees children’s enthusiasm increase with their abilities. Many even show the dogs illustrations as they go, to make sure they’re following the story.
“The blanket—where the dog is—is a place of non-judgment so the children can feel secure to sit down and read to the dog, because the dog is not going to make fun of them,” Prichard explained.
Teachers report that a child’s increased confidence in their reading skills also results in confidence overall, with greater participation in other activities and increased attendance.
As for the dogs, “They really enjoy working with these kids,” reports Prichard. “For them, I think their reward is the interaction.”
Through Cherry Point, Prichard and her husband, Tim, offer obedience training and private lessons for the public. Prichard is also developing a program for dogs to volunteer with children who need to testify in court and for the mental health program at West Florida Hospital.
Prichard said their program currently has around 20 or more R.E.A.D.® Volunteers but are in need of more handler-dog teams willing to participate. While many of the activities are held in schools, at present six libraries in Pensacola, Navarre, Pace, Fort Walton Beach, and Foley host monthly R.E.A.D.® events, which are free.
Cherry Point Dog Training Center