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Read, Fido, read: Dogs help struggling children excel

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Callie, the reading apricot poodle, sits in her "reading corner" waiting for a story. (Photo by Danielle Gaines)

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Callie practices "pawphonics" while reading at home on a Friday afternoon. (Photo by Danielle Gaines)

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Callie, an apricot toy poodle, voluteers by helping struggling children read. (Photo by Danielle Gaines)

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Nancy George-Michalson lies down to read with her dog, Callie, in their New York apartment. (Photo by Danielle Gaines)

Callie is young, excitable and a voracious reader. At reading time, she eagerly runs through her New York City apartment to her sunny reading corner and picks out a favorite picture book. She sprawls across the carpet and begins to “read.”

All the while, Callie, an apricot toy poodle, is wagging her tail. For her, “reading” means listening to her owner read out loud while following along with her paw.

Callie learned to “read” just over a year ago, when her trainer, Nancy George-Michalson, discovered a program in which dogs help struggling children improve their reading and communication skills. Since then, George-Michalson has trained Callie to respond to the command “Callie, do you want to read?” and helped Callie concentrate, learning to turn pages by putting a doggie snack between each one. Callie can even choose a book by pawing or nosing the one she wants.

“Every night she makes us read,” George-Michalson said. “She just expects it now.”

Callie is just one of thousands of Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) across the United States and Canada, participating in a unique program founded in 1999 by the Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals.

The project is based on research that shows the presence of a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and help nervous readers relax, said Kathy Klotz, the director of ITA, which works to improve quality of life through human-animal bonding. Dogs like Callie help children with reading problems turn their attention outward to the dog, relieving the stress associated with reading aloud, and, hopefully, helping to lay a foundation for lifelong learning. Proponents bill it as a creative, no-cost way to solve a critical problem in the U.S., where National Assessments of Educational Progress report cards show that 40 percent of fourth grade students read below their grade level.

Since its inception, more than 2,000 pups and their parents have registered as therapy teams. Organized locally by dog owners, librarians or teachers, the programs operate everywhere from nursing homes to kindergarten classrooms, and go by a number of clever names: In Florida, children attend Pup Pals meetings. In Michigan, one program is called Therapaws to READ. And in Pennsylvania, children attend Paws for Reading session.

A dog’s personality is critical to its success as a volunteer. After the dogs have had obedience and therapy training, evaluators test them in 20 variables from reactions to loud noises to being petted by strangers.

A year ago, George-Michalson got herself and Callie certified as a therapy team, after seeing Callie’s friendliness toward people in Central Park.

“When I would lift her into the laps of people in wheelchairs, she would be so gentle and loving and the biggest, broadest, happiest smiles were coming to their faces,” she said. “I didn’t even know we were doing therapy then.”

“Whatever the reason the children can’t read--learning disability, anxiety, family issues-–they really love to read to Callie,” George-Michalson said. “She has that effect on people.”

In sessions with children, reading dogs can walk around, fall asleep or stare straight at the book, depending on its mood and the child. Judy Audevard trained her dog, Kizzy, to stare directly at the pages when she says “Kizzy, look at the picture!”

“Kizzy and I have been witness to miracles,” Audevard said.

All READ sessions have one thing in common: a relaxed, comfortable, safe and non-judgmental environment.

George-Michalson sits with children on the ground, encouraging them to lie on their tummies to relax. Parents and teachers often leave the area-–even in group sessions-–and the trainers rarely talk.

Trainers have to be creative in helping children past stumbling blocks to avoid an air of judgment. If a child can’t read a word, George-Michalson says that she and Callie also don’t know it. Then they use “pawphonics.” Callie covers up different syllables of the word and the whole group works together to get the answer. In Pennsylvania, Cathy Guyer and her dog, Teddy, use another tactic. When a child is stuck or doesn’t understand the meaning of a word, Teddy “whispers” the answer to Cathy and she passes the information on to the child. Since all of the communication is done through the dog, the child doesn’t fear judgment.

Readers can pick anything they want to read to the dogs. Some will bring in homework or their own poems, which is especially helpful because it gives them a practice run for the very texts that might cause them anxiety in the coming days or weeks. Trainers will always have their own selection of books on hand as well, usually animal themed, so the kids are learning in all aspects of the process.

“The children have the opportunity to turn into a teacher or tutor and for once they don’t feel inadequate,” Klotz said. “They blossom right in front of you when they think they are teaching a dog.”

Kizzy recently became the subject for a book, launching him to celebrity status. In November 2006, author Chris Williams, who publishes a series called “One Incredible Dog!” wrote a 32-page children’s book about the spunky, white bichon frise from Nyack, N.Y.

Volunteerism wasn’t always easy for the Kizzy and Audevard. She remembers being turned away from schools and libraries when she showed up to offer Kizzy’s volunteer services.

“Many people would laugh at me when I would say what I was doing,” she said. “It is not something to be laughed at, I take it very seriously.”

Since the book, there are fewer skeptics and more appearances, Audevard said. She and Kizzy have now appeared at more than 175 events across the country.

“Our purpose of the book was to get the word out that dogs can do a lot more than just be pets,” Audevard said. “Kids can even read to their own dogs; whatever you pick up and read, they will listen.”

E-mail: dg2410@columbia.edu