Canine-aided reading program sees rising participation

BY LUKE VOELZ | JULY 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Annie the corgi sprawled across the Iowa City Public Library’s story-time room, occasionally tilting her head toward a reading of “Cowgirl Kate.”

The 6-year-old service dog, whose therapy-dog license was renewed a few months earlier, spent almost half an hour listening to children narrate their favorite books as part of Iowa City’s Read Education Assistance Dog program.

The calm environment — devoid of peers or teachers — aids children with apprehension about reading aloud, said Wendy Deutelbaum, Annie’s owner.

“Kids improve [reading skills] more quickly when they read to dogs,” said the former social worker. “It’s a pretty nonjudgmental experience.”

Children have enjoyed the experience enough to prompt a spike in the program over the last year, said Service Dogs of Johnson County Director Maggie Winegarten. The 50-year-old attributed the popularity to a growing demand for volunteer reading assistance following cuts to local reading recovery programs.

“We’re losing a lot of reading-support people in school,” she said. “As they’re cutting support for struggling readers in school, we can step in and fill that gap.”

While the library program is open to all children, Winegarten and fellow Service Dogs of Johnson County members design school reading programs to aid children who struggle with reading performance.

Former Hoover Elementary teacher Pam Nelson saw children struggle this way through her 40 years on the job, inspiring her to aid Iowa City’s 5-year-old branch of the program.

“[Reading with dogs] is a totally nonthreatening environment,” she said. “They can just be lost in the story, and the dog gives them that love back. It’s not like sitting in class, with a teacher listening to you read and correcting you on everything.”

Deutelbaum and fellow dog handlers don’t even correct young readers themselves — instead, they ask children to explain any confusing words to the dog, working through their problems holistically.

Cornelia Lang, a parent and associate professor at the University of Iowa, said this process helped her son Kahleb learn how to read four years ago.

“He did [the program] as an emergent reader,” Lang said. “And he was a very confident reader in front of the dogs.”

Therapy dogs can only work with children after training under the Delta Society, a national service-dog program that runs the reading program along with several other therapy dog branches. Enrolled dogs undergo a series of behavior tests around loud, distracting strangers and stimuli, culminating in a $1 million liability policy against aggression or misbehavior.

“It’s intensive — they have to weed out dogs who are aggressive,” Nelson said. “They have to be able to adjust in a loud or unfamiliar situation, to not be frightened or act out.”

Annie’s housemate Leo didn’t make the cut — Deutelbaum said the fellow corgi began growling when approached by another dog during training. Meanwhile, Annie seemed to have cast off her breed’s trademark jumpiness in favor of a relaxed, kid-friendly demeanor.

“It’s really very touching how she behaves differently at work,” Deutelbaum said. “In everyday life, she doesn’t like noises. But if we were at a nursing home, she doesn’t flinch.”

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