Therapy Dogs Help Kids Get Hooked on Reading

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The hardest part about reading to dogs is finding the right book.

For starters, it should be short enough that the reader can get to the end in 15 minutes, and it should involve a dog as a main character.

“They try to pick books the dogs will like,” said Kristi Kamen about her two children, Ashley, 7, and Ellie, 11.

Both Ashley and Ellie were at Deerfield Public Library Monday night to take part in K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore (K9RBNS), a program started by Carole Yuster in 2007 where children read to therapy dogs.

The program’s focus is to both improve reading skills and motivate kids to read more. According to Yuster, children at reading levels between first and fifth grade who may be struggling to read feel less intimidated by a dog listening than they would a parent or a stranger.

“If the child’s parents are there and they are a struggling reader than they’re not feeling good about the parents being there,” Yuster explained. She said that when dogs are the audience, however, struggling readers are “generally happy to be there.”

On Monday night, the kids were generally ecstatic to be there. While waiting for their 15 minutes to read to one of the dogs, they huddled around a collie-German Shepherd mix named Sundance in the children’s section of the library.

“The dogs don’t judge,” said Sundance’s owner DonnaLee Caringella. “All they try to say is, ‘Just let me lick you, just keep petting me.'”

During a reading period, one of the children, Joe Healy, sat on the floor of a small room next to Hobbes, a 10-year-old yellow Labrador. He read with intense concentration, and — without looking up — would occasionally reach out to pet the furry head of his listener.

When he finished a page, Healy paused to show Hobbes the pictures.

Kamen said that even though her younger daughter is a more reluctant reader than her sister, she never has to push her to come to this event.

“Because we’re here, we inevitably leave with more books,” she said.

Yuster first got the idea for K9RBNS in a hospital. She was visiting her mother, who was struggling with cancer, when a therapy dog was brought into the room. It was the first time Yuster had ever seen one, and she was impressed by how much “it helped to reduce the stress of the moment.”

After her mother died, Yuster got her own dog, Minny, and trained it to be a therapy dog. At first she brought Minny to hospitals, but her mother’s love of reading gave Yuster a more unique idea for her pet.

“My mom was an avid reader, so I thought it was a legacy to start a children reading to dog program,” Yuster said.

Starting the program in Highland Park wasn’t easy. In March 2007, Yuster found out that there was an ordinance in place that prohibited dogs from public schools and libraries in the city. So Yuster, with the help of Highland Park Councilwoman (and mayoral candidate) Terri Olian, wrote an exception to allow certified training dogs on academic and government property. The council passed the exception in June.

Yuster’s program started with 10 therapy dogs and that number has nearly doubled since. In addition to meeting monthly with children at libraries in Highland Park, Deerfield and Wilmette, members of the program (and their dogs) also frequent Oak Terrace, Red Oak and Ravinia Elementary schools to target children who are struggling to stay at the reading level of their classmates.

According to Yuster, the program helps.

“Not only in the schools but in the libraries, we track the increased interest in reading,” she said.

In addition to an increased interest in reading, parents and Yuster have noticed an increased interest in dogs — specifically the dogs that come out for K9RBNS.

Deerfield resident Susan Stancliff said her daughter plays “Dogs” with her friends, neighbor Michelle Jackson added, “My kids would be coming every night if they offered it.”

Kamen’s daughters have pictures of every K9RBNS dog in a scrapbook. They also have the K9BRNS calendar, with pictures of the dogs on each month. That calendar is one of the ways Yuster plans to raise money for the reading program this year.

Article/photos/video: Patch editor Natalie Kaplan.
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