Reading dogs make a difference to young readers in Manatee schools

MANATEE -- Kaitlyn Hooper, a first-grader at Williams Elementary, didn't seem to mind that the black Labrador she was reading to had seemingly fallen asleep. She still took time after each page to show 2-year-old Spirit all of the pictures.

A few minutes later, classmate Chadi Pelcha welcomed how Spirit, who is actually an "ambassador dog" from Southeastern Guide Dogs, rested her head on Chandi's lap while the 7-year-old read.

"I like how she sits and listens," Chadi said.

Chandi and Kaitlyn, two of the 20 first-graders who read to Spirit once a week, know first-hand the benefits of reading to dogs. They and their classmates are proof of the growing number of studies that show canines can help kids read better and

more confidently.

"If you would have come in August and watched these kids read, what a difference now!" says Kathy Hysmith, Spirit's owner and a volunteer with Southeastern Guide Dogs. "There's been so much growth. The kids are actually excited about reading."

That's the most obvious benefit of reading to dogs, says teacher Melissa Andrews.

"A lot of kids get very nervous about reading," she says. "So for them to be relaxed and enjoying it and love to read is really the most important thing. It's so important at this age for them to learn the fundamentals."

Several studies have helped illustrate how and why reading to dogs can help youngsters with their reading skills:

n A study by Tufts University shows that kids who read to dogs once a week for 20 minutes experience improvements in their reading ability and had an improved attitude toward reading compared to people who read to other people.

n A University of California-Davis study showed that children's reading fluency increased by up to 30 percent among kids who read to dogs.

n And the State University of New York-Buffalo conducted a study in 2002 that showed the presence of dogs while reading lowers kids' blood pressure.

"Dogs are nonjudgmental," Hysmith said. "They're not correcting kids. They're just there to listen."

Spirit, like the other reading dogs provided by Southeastern Guide Dogs, became an "ambassador dog" because she had a medical condition or some other quality that disqualified her from serving as a guide dog. In Spirit's case, her condition was hip dysplasia, Hysmith said.

The ambassador dogs often visit hospitals in addition to their work with children. They still have the same high-quality training provided to guide dogs. For example, Spirit knows how to safely walk in and out of doors to protect herself and her owner, how to walk in a safe line, and is unfazed by almost any loud noise or unexpected event.

Hysmith has seen Spirit react calmly to fire alarms, and Spirit merely soaked in the attention before her reading duties last week when almost every child in class reached down to pet her. "She's very laid back," Hysmith said. "She's been given all sorts of experiences through her training as a guide dog."

In addition to Williams Elementary, Southeastern has reading dogs at Rogers Garden and Mills elementary schools in Manatee County and several schools in Sarasota, Charlotte and Pinellas counties.