Reading to Dogs Helps Kids Build Literacy Skills

Innovative program helps kids build literacy skills by reading to furry friends.

ByABC News via GMA logo
August 16, 2009, 8:54 AM

Aug. 16, 2009— -- Theo, a 5-year-old border collie-greyhound mix, might just be a young reader's best friend. That's because Theo, like more than 2,300 dogs around the country, has been trained to do what many humans cannot: listen, with seemingly unlimited patience, as his young friends read out loud.

"I like to read stories with him," said 8-year-old Brian Chan, who reads with Theo at a branch of the New York Public Library. "He does look at the story book, and he smiles a lot."

Theo is part of an innovative program the New York Public Library started five years ago called R.E.A.D. with Mudge. R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs, and the program now has about a dozen dog-trainer teams that visit library branches about once a month -- giving kids the chance to choose a book and read it to them.

The New York program is modeled after one that started in Utah in 1999 and has now spread to every state except South Dakota. The idea: Kids would feel less stress reading if they were reading to someone who would never laugh at a mistake or judge them for mispronouncing a word. Therapy dogs were perfect.

"Kids have to practice, practice, practice to be good readers, and yet, when you're practicing, if you make a mistake, it can feel risky or uncomfortable," said Francie Alexander, the chief academic officer at Scholastic. "But if you're practicing with a dog, and the dog is nonjudgmental, you don't mind making the mistake. In fact, you'll probably correct it."

That was the experience of 6-year-old Isabelle Ephron, who read with Theo for the first time last month and was surprised when he gave her a friendly lick.

"He usually licked me when I was stuck on a word," Isabelle said. "I think he wanted to give me encouragement to figure out that word."