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Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) Program

08/21/2015 09:04AM ● By Claudia Mosby

A Good Read

September 2015
By Claudia Mosby
Photos: Erin Claassen

A sign strategically placed along Highway 44 entices passersby to come and read with Miss Midnight the first Saturday of each month at the Shingletown Library.

Visitors may be surprised to learn that she is a 7-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever mix who, with handler Sherry Myers, volunteers as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program.

“I make puppets or props to go with the story I plan to use to get all the children involved,” says Myers, who began escorting Miss Midnight to the READ events four years ago. “You have to show kids that words are alive, that there is excitement in reading.”

An international program of Intermountain Therapy Animals—coordinated locally by Prescription Pets—READ is designed to help improve the skills of reluctant readers between the ages of 5 and 12, including those with learning disabilities. Miss Midnight and Myers are one of 30 therapy teams that visit libraries and elementary schools throughout Northern California.

Nellie, a Korean Jindo, and her handler Linda Spivey are seven-year veterans of the program. An expert at sleight-of-paw tricks, the red-haired, curly tailed pooch keeps children reading during her monthly visits to the Redding Library. “I can give Nellie a hand signal and she will touch the page with her paw,” says Spivey. “I can then say to the reader, ‘Oh, look, Nellie has a question.’ It allows us to go into more depth with their reading.”

A certified READ instructor, Spivey is a former elementary school teacher and Title I Reading Coordinator who now works as a university faculty member and administrator in teacher education and counseling.

“We have some who never pick up a book,” Spivey says of the excited children she sees read monthly with Nellie. “They will go and read to five dogs, earning a sticker on their personalized bookmark for each one. They are so happy and proud when they leave because they have read without anyone judging them.” Volunteers correct, but that correction is delivered through the therapy dog. “We will choose to say something like, ‘Look at that again,’” says Spivey. ‘Nellie looks kind of puzzled; can you explain to her what you just read?’ It is not ateacher saying, ‘No, that is wrong.’”

 Certified READ instructor and program coordinator Katy Yoder says, “Every child who reads to a dog at the Redding Library gets to pick out a book at the Friends of the Library bookstore. At the end of the school year, we give a new book to every child involved with READ at their school.”

Although thoroughly vetted and trained for this type of work, the dogs do get tired, prompting creative responses from their handlers. “If Nellie closes her eyes, I will say, ‘She is thinking of your reading more as a bedtime story,’” says Spivey, “affirming to the child, ‘She is still listening.’ At the end, I will barely touch her or say her name and she will sit up and close the book.”

Myers and Spivey completed a two-year training program through Prescription Pets. Bi-annually they undergo therapy team recertification. Other READ volunteers, like Brooke Thompson, are not far removed from childhood themselves. Now a senior at Shasta High School, she has been training Guide Dogs for the Blind since she was 10 and joined READ four years ago. “There were times early on when I was younger than the kids I was working with,” says Thompson, who with therapy dog Fallon volunteers twice a week in an after-school reading program at Grant Elementary School. “It was a little awkward but they were happy to be there with the dogs and I was, too. I have seen the difference it makes.”

This year, the organization is partnering with the Redding School District to gather data on classroom READ programs at Turtle Bay School and Cypress Elementary School. “We want to document improvements to give us a better chance at grant funding,” says Yoder.

“Third grade is where children make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn,” she adds. “This is not a dog-and-pony show. We want to demonstrate statistically that it can and does make a difference.”

Celebrate National Literacy Month with READ, Sept. 19 from 1-3 pm
at the Redding Library •