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Reading Program Pairs Children With Dogs

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Students share stories with reading buddies

By Josh O’Leary For Iowa City Press-Citizen

Reading in a quiet corner of the Coralville Public Library, Nakia Long traced her book’s text with one hand and scratched the belly of Garbo the dog with the other.

As Nakia sounded out the words in “Biscuit Finds a Friend” and the poodle nudged closer, it was hard to tell who was having a better time.

Nakia, 10, and her brother, Isaiah Blaxton, 9, were two of the children Sunday afternoon who shared stories with a furry reading buddy. Volunteers from Iowa City Reading Education Assistance Dogs are at the Coralville Public Library with their trained therapy dogs from 1 to 3 p.m. each Sunday through Nov. 22.

The program, which works with children at several area schools each year and periodically at the Iowa City and Coralville libraries, pairs grade school and middle school students with kid-friendly dogs for some quiet, one-on-one reading time.

“The idea is that a dog is a non-judgmental listener,” said Dori Butler, who reads with children with her 1-year-old golden retriever mix, Mouse. “A child who is reluctant to practice reading or feels self-conscious reading to a teacher will maybe take more of an initiative to read to a dog, because a dog isn’t going to be correcting them. The dog just lies there and listens.”

Isaiah, a Coralville Central student, was back at the library for a second-straight week. Last Sunday, he read to Lucy, a goldendoodle, and said he could tell how much she enjoyed the story.

“She sat down and listened,” said Isaiah, who this time around paired up with Mouse to read “Maxi, The Hero.”

After making it through the book in his 15-minute session with Mouse and Butler, Isaiah was all smiles.

“That’s a hard one, but you are really trying hard, and I like to see that,” Butler told him.

Maggie Winegarden introduced the R.E.A.D. program to Iowa City in 2005. Winegarden had heard about the idea, which she said was developed in 1999 by Intermountain Therapy Animals in Utah, and thought it would be the perfect way to combine her three of her favorite things: children, dogs and reading.

After testing out the program at Lemme Elementary, Winegarden said the school district was impressed enough to implement it at other schools. Winegarden now has nine teams of volunteers and dogs working at five schools within the district, and she now is looking to expand to two more schools.

Volunteers must have their dogs certified through the Delta Therapy Dogs, then complete training through R.E.A.D.

“Literacy is the future, and anything we can do to help children gain strength in literacy is going to help them through their entire lives,” said Winegarden, whose dog, Lucy, is one of the reading buddies.

The volunteers said working in the libraries offers children a unique and fun outing, but it’s the long-term work in the schools where they make the biggest difference. By reading week after week with the same children, who make fast friends with the dogs, they often see them make strides by the end of the program.

“Children who previously were hesitant taking any risks reading, hesitant to sound out words or hesitant to try the next level of book — we’ll see them gain confidence in their reading throughout a whole semester,” Winegarden said.

Garbo’s owner, Sara Tolkheim, said that it’s gratifying to watch the students blossom with the help of the dogs.

“You really see improvement,” she said. “Their confidence increases tremendously in just a short period of time.”

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