Hudson Valley reading programs goes to the dogs

Man's best friend is also a kid's best listener

Read to a dog? It may sound far-fetched (excuse the pun) at first, but think about it.  Dogs are good listeners. They aren’t critical. They’re warm and furry, comforting and patient. And even if you’re a struggling young reader, you can be pretty confident that you’re a better reader than the dog.

Timmy meets Dusty, his reading dog

First grade student Timmy Raines, joined the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program at Golden Hill Elementary School in Florida (NY) in January, 2011.
For Timmy, being chosen for the program was “…like a surprise, and it was fun.” He adds, “Dusty the reading dog is a little dog, but it has big fur. When you read aloud, it likes to lie down next to you.” What was Timmy’s favorite part about reading to Dusty? “When I got to pet him for the very first time.”

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Timmy is one of four children who read to Dusty for fifteen minutes once a week. Four years ago, Dusty’s owner, Barbara Babikian, began bringing her first READ dog, Kaila, to Golden Hill Elementary School. Kaila, a Shetland sheepdog, is now retired.  She is one of four dogs belonging to Babikian. Three of those dogs are trained therapy dogs.

Babikian began visiting nursing homes with her dog, Kaila, about 10 years ago, and then with Lille, about 6½ years ago. She kept looking for a way that her dogs could help children. Eventually, Babikian heard about the READ program.

She says, “In order to be a READ team I had to join Hudson Valley Visiting Pets and take a course. Kaila really didn’t enjoy walking around the hospital from room to room. Once I got into the READ program where she could lie down in one spot, I realized this was the perfect fit.”

How the program started

Intermountain Therapy Animals in Utah launched the READ program in 1999. The program’s mission is to improve children’s literacy skills. Today there are programs worldwide. The READ dogs that participate are registered therapy animals. With their owners, the animals volunteer in schools, libraries, and many other settings.
READ dogs have to become therapy dogs first. Babikian and her dogs are registered with Delta Society Pet Partners. To become a therapy team involves four steps:

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Step 1: The ‘Human-End’ of the Leash attends a Pet Partners Handler Course either in-person or online.
Step 2: The health of the therapy animal is screened by a veterinarian.
Step 3: The Human-Animal team’s skills and aptitude are evaluated.
Step 4: The team submits a registration application. Mrs. Babikian says, “Part of what makes a great therapy dog team is recognizing where your dog shines.”

Mrs. Babikian’s dog, Dusty, is a three-year-old Shetland sheepdog. Dusty started his READ work at Golden Hill Elementary School when he was just 1½ years old.

“Shelties are a very sensitive breed,” Babikian notes. “I had to go slow with him.” At first, Dusty was nervous, but he soon adjusted to the children and the noise in the halls. “The kids were absolutely wonderful and so patient. Here was Dusty, putting his nose in their ears, really smelling them.” A couple of weeks went by, and Dusty was approaching the children and wagging his tail. “He’s become an amazing READ dog,” says Babikian.

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How R.E.A.D. helped Hannah
Twelve-year-old Hannah Castine of Florida participated in the READ program when she was in first grade at Golden Hill Elementary School. At that time, she was diagnosed as dyslexic (see side bar). Her canine reading partner was Kaila, Babikian’s Shetland sheepdog.

Hannah says, “I was not a very good reader. And it got me frustrated at times, because I really couldn’t read at all. When I went to the dog, she helped me because it got me excited. That definitely was a big part in me wanting to learn. The woman (Barbara Babikian) helped me understand the words. The dog, Kaila, was actually really good. She would sit and listen, and sometimes she would kind of react to what happened [in the story]. And that got me interested because I thought, ‘Wow, someone understands and cares about what I’m reading.’”

Hannah’s mother, Dana Castine, recalls “Hannah spent a lot of time in first grade avoiding any kind of reading or language arts. Once Hannah started the program, she was confident in her reading and her writing.”

Program gets thumbs up from local educators

Ronald De Pace, principal at Golden Hill Elementary School, notes, “The READ program is specifically designed for those children who lack confidence in their ability to read. It’s about our reluctant readers. We’re trying to get their reading skills and confidence strengthened by reading to the dog, who, by the way, is fully attentive and non-judgmental.”

How a child gets into the program

Children are recommended to participate in the READ program by their classroom teachers, the reading specialist, and the librarian. Four children read to Dusty once a week for eight weeks.

Four years ago, Kara Rolando, a second grade teacher at Golden Hill Elementary School, brought the READ program to the attention of the Building Leadership Team (BLT) which included school librarian, Marlayne Sick.

“This program provides an incredible opportunity for our students to interact with the READ dog in a non-judgemental, loving environment,” says Sick, “and has been so well received by parents, teachers and students.”

Reflecting on her time with her READ dog Kaila, Castine says, “Kaila helped me a lot. She made reading a lot more fun, and easier. And you know, sometimes dyslexia is not an easy thing to live with. I definitely have more confidence when I read.”

Kim Ellis is a writer and teacher.