Man's Best Friend Lends a Helping Hand

By: Marcus Washington
By: Marcus Washington

July 4, 2005

It 's a program that started six years ago in Utah, and has now made it's way to Madison County. Here is a program that uses man's best friend to help encourage kids to become better readers.

Driving down Route 29 through Madison County, more than likely you've seen it, but take a trip inside and you may get more than you anticipated. No, its not a pet store. It's actually a place where dogs help kids improve their reading skills.

"It's fun to read to the dogs," said Aaron Neal, an eight-year-old from Madison County. "They'll just listen to ya."

That's exactly what these dogs are supposed to do. It's part of a National Program, Reading Education Assistance Dogs, R.E.A.D., a program that uses therapy trained dogs to help children become better readers.

According to Neal, he can enjoy reading without being judged. "Like if you missed a word, they won't say 'you missed this word,' or 'you skipped this,' or 'you missed [that] word,'" he explained.

The dogs are used as therapy animals, and studies have shown that children enrolled in the program feel less intimidated when reading to a dog, while reading at their own pace. They make enormous improvements in reading while building their self-esteem.

"Their reading skills improve. It also gives them encouragement to read more, so some of them actually go home and practice reading for the dogs," said Jessica Burnside, a R.E.A.D. volunteer. "Kids that don't normally read end up reading more often."

Studies show that reading more often actually helps younger children overcome the fear of reading in front of their peers.

According to Burnside, some children complete their first book at the R.E.A.D. program, but the joy of completing the book doesn't only come from the students.

"It's so much fun to see them improve, even in the 30 minutes that we're reading," added Lyn Westbrook, R.E.A.D volunteer.

The program is open to any child or dog that would like to become a part of the Books and Barks Summer R.E.A.D Program, every Saturday from 10 a.m. until noon at Blue Ridge Emporium on Route 29, or just call 540-948-6747.

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