It’s hard to resist Molly’s charms. But it’s not her tea-colored eyes, patient demeanor or soft, silky coat that invite her second-grade fans to sit with her.

It’s the dog’s rapt interest in books.

“Molly likes to listen to me,” explained 7-year-old Kai Pat, as he leaned against the docile dog, a Vizsla. “My reading makes her happy.”

Molly is a weekly visitor to Cedar Ridge Elementary in Eden Prairie, where she and three other dogs (as well as their owners) rotate between the school’s second-grade classrooms every Monday. They’re part of the local R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program. The national nonprofit has more than 120 Minnesota animal-owner teams that volunteer with young readers in schools, libraries, hospitals and homeless shelters.

“It makes reading a positive time for children and makes them comfortable reading out loud,” said second-grade teacher Katie Tompkins, who has collected bins of books featuring dogs as main characters. “Students who dread reading look forward to it when the dogs are here.”

The program holds greatest appeal for readers from kindergarten to third grade. Children at that age are learning to distinguish letters and create sounds from the alphabet. They’re also in a developmental stage that precedes skepticism.

Living in a world where fairies exchange money for teeth and toys arrive via chimney, they’re aren’t quite sure about the line between fantasy and reality, so listening animals aren’t magical, they’re natural.

That’s part of the fun for Patti Anderson, who coordinates local R.E.A.D teams and trains volunteers.

“You project through the dog, you become the puppeteer creating this experience for the child,” she said. “I can sometimes hide a treat in the binding of a book to get my dog to really stare at the book and you’d swear he’s really listening. I try to get myself out of the way and encourage the interaction.”

Anderson thinks children relate to animals because children understand what it means to be innocent and vulnerable.

Of course, not just any mutt can settle in for story time.

Every pet in the program is a registered therapy animal that has completed six to 10 weeks of training with its owner, has been tested for health, safety and temperament, then has undergone an additional four-hour training with a R.E.A.D instructor.

“Molly knows the difference between playing at home and working,” said Connie Priesz, Molly’s owner. “I put a special harness on her when we’re working and spread out her blanket for her. She’s learned the signals.”

Priesz, a retired middle school teacher from Shakopee, runs the local R.E.A.D Facebook and web page (readdogsmn.org) and trains volunteers for the program.

“It doesn’t matter the breed, what counts for a therapy dog is its personality,” she said. “Once when we were reading, the fire alarm went off. You have to know how your dog will react. Life happens all around you and you have to be ready.”

Effective and fun

The R.E.A.D. program, which started in Utah in 1999, has spread to hundreds of communities worldwide. The unique approach to literacy has won the approval of scholars who’ve reviewed it.

“Pets are nonjudgmental and affectionate, and not interested in whether children are fluent, read all the words correctly, or read a book that is on grade level,” said Prof. Deborah Dillon, an endowed chair in reading in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. “Reading a text aloud can develop confidence and fluency in a young person.”

Several studies also confirm the pooch connection.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis measured reading skills in third-graders and noted that students who read aloud to dogs for 10 weeks showed a 12 percent improvement, while students who did not participate in the program showed no change in their abilities.

Anecdotal research from the University of Texas at Arlington and Purdue University found that middle schoolers with emotional disabilities showed improved behaviors when reading aloud to dogs.

Other studies have confirmed that just being in the presence of a pet and stroking its fur lowers the heart rate and triggers the relaxation response.

“The volunteers are trained to say things like, ‘I don’t think the dog understood that word, can you explain it?’ ” said Tompkins. “That deepens the meaning in the text and helps the reader’s metacognition, so they’re thinking while they’re reading.”

From pooches to guinea pigs

Some young readers are fearful or allergic, or keep their distance from dogs because of cultural or religious beliefs. So other animals also participate in the program, including cats, rabbits, even a miniature horse.

Anderson boasts a 16-beast therapy menagerie, with four dogs, three rabbits and five guinea pigs ready to accompany her on reading visits.

“The guinea pigs and rabbits are a novelty — a lot of kids haven’t petted one. Shy and careful kids connect with a quiet, soft rabbit when a big bouncy Lab can be overwhelming,” Anderson said. “You can see them relax when you put that little warm creature next to them.”

Watching that tender interaction is what motivates many volunteers to devote their time and energy to helping emerging readers.

Seven-year-old Luca Juola, an English language learner in his first year at a Minnesota school after arriving from Finland, proudly read a book about an ornery beagle to Tazz, a Chihuahua-poodle mix. The tiny dog’s ears perked up when it heard the boy’s voice.

“He thinks I did a good job,” said Juola.

And that’s the simple beauty in sharing a story with an animal.

“No matter how they do, the dogs don’t criticize,” said Priesz. The students “can all read better than a dog.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.