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Reading with Rover

Sheryl Dickstein Pipe, Ph.D.

Reading With Rover

Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.
—George Eliot

Sandy Martin prides herself on “thinking outside of the box.” But finding a meaningful way to combine her passions for reading and animals was proving difficult. One day, Martin, a member of the board of directors of Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA), was discussing with Kathy Klotz, ITA executive director, the similarities among children in ITA programs—low self-esteem, lack of confidence, anxiety and discomfort performing tasks in front of others—and how these characteristics were lessened with the introduction of a therapy animal. That night, Martin had a dream: pairing therapy animals with literacy-challenged children.

R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) debuted in November 1999 at the main branch of the public library in Salt Lake City, UT. For half an hour a week, over four weeks, children read aloud to certified therapy dogs. Martin and other human R.E.A.D. team members work closely with reading specialists. The canine team members, including Martin’s canine partner, Olivia, also help teach literacy skills by using their paws to break words into smaller units and to help turn pages. “If we come to a word that the child may not know the meaning of, I say, ‘I don’t think Olivia understood that word. Can you tell her what it means?’ If the child can’t define the word, I say, ‘Well, if you both look it up in the dictionary, I know you’ll be able to explain what the word means to Olivia.’” By offering this assistance through the dogs, the learning situation remains nonjudgmental and comfortable for the students.

The pilot program proved successful. One student said that she stuttered less when reading to the dog than when reading aloud in other situations. Another boy, who shyly offered “I don’t read very good” at the beginning of the first session, proudly read two books to Olivia during the third session. Today, a corps of 30 R.E.A.D. teams provides programs every Saturday at each of the seven branches of the Salt Lake City Public Library.

Pawsitive Experience

In addition to its library programs, R.E.A.D. teams go to public schools to work with students who have been identified as reading below grade level. The teams work with each student for 20 minutes a week during the school year. Over a 16-month period, participating students experienced significant improvements in their reading levels, increasing an average of one-and-a-half to two levels. One student’s reading level jumped from 3.4 to 6.8; another’s increased from 3.2 to 5.8.

Children’s behavior changed in other ways, as well. Their attendance improved, they turned in more assignments, they checked books out of the library and they joined school clubs. Their self-confidence was boosted, too.

The children see the dogs as an integral part of the program. They say, “The dog won’t laugh at me if I make a mistake,” and, “When I get to those hard words, I concentrate real hard, and [the dog] concentrates with me, and we get it together.”

The success of R.E.A.D. has inspired others to develop similar programs in their communities. Helen Savill, director of humane education at the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast (HSTC) in Stuart, FL, learned about the program through a volunteer who declared, “We can do this.” In March 2001 they started Paws to Read. Today there are more than 35 Paws to Read teams and another 35 names on the waiting list. Savill recalls one student—a 13-year-old boy whose mother wryly joked that her son was “allergic to books, not dogs”—who was reading on his own for pleasure after only two sessions. She also points out the subtle imparting of humane education lessons during the sessions, noting that the children choose from animal-themed books selected by the librarian, they learn how to properly interact with the dogs and they experience first-hand a close, bonded relationship between a caretaker and a companion animal. And their parents often ask about the HSTC shelter and its other programs. The only problem, says Savill, is “keeping up with the demand.”

A variety of similar programs are being developed by organizations across the country. For more information on starting a R.E.A.D. program, visit

Sheryl Dickstein Pipe, Ph.D., is the director of ASPCA Humane Education.

© 2001 ASPCA

ASPCA Animal Watch – Winter 2001

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424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
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