Fighting illiteracy

As a business owner, one of the most heartbreaking things to me is an employee who fails because he or she can't read. These people are smart and speak English as a first language, but for one reason or another, don't possess basic reading skills.

My boyfriend is an electrician and when his work took him into elementary schools to install new equipment, he saw firsthand an element in the equation of illiteracy. He told me stories of overcrowded, understaffed schools filled with distracted children and frazzled teachers. While the staff was doing its best with the resources it had, it was an environment that could have been more conducive to learning.

Children who don't learn to read are almost surely sentenced to life in poverty. Poverty often leads to crime. Troubled, I wondered what I could do to help. Serendipitously, I had my own dog enrolled in a Therapy Dog class where we were told about the R.E.A.D. Program. What great luck. Not only could I help fight illiteracy, the solution involved dogs.

The R.E.A.D. Program

R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs. And that's just what it is. By reading aloud to dogs, kids improve their overall reading skills. R.E.A.D. teams volunteer in schools, shelters, youth detention centers, libraries and more. The dog and handler team come equipped with a comfy, inviting blanket and picture books to accommodate every reading level and taste. A child settles onto the blanket with the dog, chooses a story he or she thinks the dog will like and reads to the attentive, unconditionally accepting canine reading companion.

If you ask adults, they will tell you that reading to a dog is less intimidating than reading to a person. The dog will not laugh, judge or criticize. If you ask children why they like reading to dogs, the answer is always the same: "Because it's fun!"

Learning to R.E.A.D.

The R.E.A.D. program goes to great lengths to train the human half of the therapy dog team to be a skilled facilitator so that he or she can provide the support and supervision necessary to build a child's reading skills. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to learn about R.E.A.D. In no time at all, I purchased a large blanket. I allowed myself a rare and unbridled shopping spree at The Red Balloon and to purchase classics that delighted me as a child, as well as some new children's books. (There is a book called "Walter the Farting Dog"- but I opted not to purchase that one.)

In order to qualify for the R.E.A.D. program, my dog Cobie and I first had to pass the Therapy Dog test. This was not easy because Cobie jumps on everyone he greets and jumping on the evaluator is an automatic failure. But our pre-training paid off and Cobie passed with flying colors. We were off to R.E.A.D.!

Cobie begins to R.E.A.D.

I was more excited for Cobie's first R.E.A.D. session than most parents are for their child's first day of school. And I was not disappointed. Cobie was in his element when he settled onto his R.E.A.D. blanket. You could literally see the connection between him and the children as they snuggled in and began reading.

When seven-year-old Darah read "The Lorax," Cobie laid his head on the pages of the book. I explained to Darah that Cobie liked the story so much he wanted to crawl right into the book. Darah was a strong reader so I assumed she read books all the time. Her father later told me that this was the first time Darah had read such a difficult book for so long a time period.

Reading to Cobie allowed Darah to reach new heights. It's no surprise children's reading levels noticeably improve when they begin the R.E.A.D. program. What did surprise the pioneers of R.E.A.D. was that children's school attendance, hygiene and self-esteem also showed marked improvement.







Anne Hendrickson is the owner of Downtown Dogs Daycare and Boarding,

To learn more about the

R.E.A.D. program, visit: or