Therapy dogs help kids develop their reading skills

Kids and books just go together. They should, anyway, according to every educational expert.

So do kids and dogs.

Kids, books and pups? The Kansas Humane Society and Junior League of Wichita see it as a win-win-win.

In a partnership with the Junior League, the local shelter has created "Read to Rover," a program designed to improve children's reading and communication skills while teaching compassion for animals.

The free program, held once a month in the Humane Society building at K-96 and Hillside, allows kids to read stories out loud to certified therapy dogs.

"We're looking for kids who are emerging readers, who know how to read but might be struggling a little bit," said Naomi Shapiro, special events coordinator for the Junior League.

"It's a great way to foster confidence in reading, and ... instill that love for learning."

The program is based on similar ones elsewhere in the country. Some local schools also employ therapy dogs as sympathetic ears for children who may not be comfortable reading aloud.

"What they're finding through research is that reading to animals is comforting to kids," said Jennifer Campbell, director of communications for the Humane Society.

"A dog's not judgmental. He doesn't criticize or correct you. A dog's happy to just hang out and listen to you."

That's certainly the case with Maverick, a 3-year-old Gordon setter owned by Kelly Benton of Wichita. He, like the other pets that participate in the Read to Rover program, is a certified therapy dog.

Last month Maverick and Benton sat calmly on the floor of their "pup tent" as children took turns coming into the tent, relaxing on the array of blankets and pillows, and reading aloud for about 15 minutes.

"He has fun," Benton said of the dog. "Because he's 3 he still fidgets a little bit. He'll lean over and slurp on them or give them a kiss."

Some kids referred to the program through teachers, counselors or speech therapists aren't used to animals. They're shy or reluctant at first, Benton said.

"Another real benefit is getting kids used to dogs a little bit," she said. "Showing them they can be part of your life in any way you'd like to make them part of your life.

"It's helped the kids who were a little skittish about it. It just helps build confidence for them. It's fun, and it's different."

Each 1 1/2-hour session includes a video about dog behavior and interacting with dogs, said Kourtney Carson, development associate for the Humane Society. Then children take turns reading to the dogs; when they're not reading, the kids work on arts and crafts projects.

At the end of each session, the children visit with one or more of the Humane Society animals available for adoption.

"Hopefully this encourages the families, if they don't have a pet at home, to at least consider it," Carson said.