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Man’s best friend, kid’s best reading partner

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A child sits with her mother at the Bozeman Public Library, reading to Luca the golden retriever and his handler, Mary Martin. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

Therapy dogs help local children gain reading confidence

By Julia Barton DIGITAL PRODUCER

BOZEMAN – A small girl curled up next to Luca the golden retriever on a Wednesday evening in the Bozeman Public Library. She quietly read a story to the dog as he licked her kneecaps. Her voice grew steady and more confident as she flicked through the pages. When she was finished, she smiled, thanked Luca, and headed off with her mother to return the book to its shelf as another child eagerly took her place.

A version of this vignette occurs each Wednesday at the library. Although the dog changes weekly, the outcome of children enjoying the judgment-free reading environment provided by the dog stays largely consistent.

Nancy Dodd, Bozeman’s interim Intermountain Therapy Animals program coordinator, believes that the program is of growing importance given how many children approach reading in today’s culture.

“[Children] don’t want to read to their classmates, their parents or their teachers if they’re not a good reader,” said Dodd. “The research has shown that they will read to a dog because the dog is nonjudgmental and doesn’t correct them, and that improves their reading skills.”

The program is called Reading Education Assistance Dogs, READ for short, and was created in 1999 by ITA, a nonprofit out of Salt Lake City. READ is based on research suggesting that reading to a therapy dog can improve factors that contribute to positive associations with reading and improved reading performance in children.

A 2017 study on the impact of therapy dogs and their handlers on a child’s reading capacity concluded that “the dogs initially provided extrinsic motivation to read, leading to more reading as well as more pleasurable experiences reading, which eventually developed into intrinsic motivation. Coupled with the dogs as attentive listeners and ‘hooks’ for personally relating to story details, the students’ desire to read expanded further, and they read more—more text and for longer periods.”

A READ team consists of a trained therapy dog like Luca and their handler, who serves to help control the dog and offer children reading assistance where needed.

“My job is to manage [the dog] and make it a positive experience for the child,” said Luca’s handler, Mary Martin. “I kind of fade into the background and just simply help him showcase what he can do by helping the child relax.”

Orange paw prints create a path leading to the corner of the children’s section where Luca patiently waits for children to read to him. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

On the day I visited the library, it was 3-year- old Luca’s second day as a READ dog. Martin, however, is a seasoned professional.

Martin moved to Bozeman in 1976 and worked for years as a teacher at the Gallatin Gateway School. When she retired in the early 2000s, she wanted to find a way to volunteer her time and continue to help children. The READ program seemed to fit that bill, and in 2006 she began training with her golden retriever, Ellie, to become a service animal team. Ellie and Martin worked together for 13 years with ITA, both in elderly care and in the READ program.

“It was a passion project that we kind of grew in and figured it out along the way together,” Martin said about her journey with Ellie. “And that was lovely.”

Dogs need to have a certain temperament to be a productive READ dog, Martin explained. Golden retrievers are popular therapy animals because of their calm nature, she said, while working breeds often have too much energy to work around the children, despite their obedience. Aside from manners, a significant part of the certification process judges whether the pups seem to enjoy the work. Although Luca is new to the program, his excitement was easily discernible as he calmly wagged his tail at each approaching child.

ITA programs have taken Martin and her furry partners across the Gallatin Valley. Although READ comes to the Bozeman Public Library every Wednesday from 4-5 p.m., ITA also works with local elementary schools and has brought therapy animals to Montana State University to help students de-stress during exam weeks.

According to Dodd, local teachers have provided powerful testimonials regarding the results of consistent student participation with READ, saying that students became far more willing and even enthusiastic about reading aloud after multiple sessions reading to therapy dogs.

Martin and Luca are one of seven active therapy dog teams that volunteer their time in the Bozeman area to the READ program. Through the program’s success in Bozeman and elsewhere, ITA has been able to grow READ with trained teams providing the program in all 50 U.S. states and more than 20 other countries around the world, explained Dodd.

“I think students these days don’t get enough practice with reading, especially with how they’ve become more used to screen time,” Dodd said. “READ is great because it brings the dogs as a nice distraction and it encourages the students to read.”

Parents and teachers in the Bozeman area are encouraged to reach out to ITA if they think a READ program would be beneficial to their students.

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