Animals Helping Students

By Susan Black

Full disclosure: As a kid, I spent hours on our back porch reading and singing to Bootsie, my little cocker spaniel. She cuddled next to me and never complained, not even when I mispronounced mirages as “my rages” and sang “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” off-key.

Ten years ago, the Utah-based Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program, developed by Intermountain Therapy Animals, started in a Salt Lake City public library. Kids curled up in corners and read books to trained, registered, and certified therapy dogs.

That’s where the “magic” began, says Anita Stone, a North Carolina journalist who’s tracked the fast-growing trend of using therapy dogs to help children read. The library program was so successful that, within a year, it was adopted in several Utah schools. Today, READ and similar programs --  including BARKS (Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety), Sit Stay Read, and Paws to Read -- are proliferating in schools across the country.

The total number of dogs used in school reading programs is hard to come by, but Stone says READ alone currently sponsors more than 1,300 therapy dogs and handlers in schools and libraries.

The numbers are likely to rise, given the growing demand for therapy dogs. In Chicago, for instance, six public schools now have full-year Sit Stay Read programs, serving nearly 800 youngsters. MaryEllen Schneider, the program’s co-founder and director, says 30 Chicago schools are on a waiting list for the coveted canine helpers.

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