Education
1:10 pm
Tue January 3, 2012

Dogs, once-homeless kids share a love of reading (and each other)

Some of Seattle’s most at-risk students are getting help with their reading skills, but not from people.

Once a week, service dogs lend their ears to formerly homeless children as they read aloud. It’s become a learning experience for both the kids and canines.

When a dozen dogs arrive at Brettler Family Place, a housing center in Seattle’s Sand Point neighborhood, about 20 excited youngsters mob them before they can even get through the door. The kids squeal with excitement as the dogs bark their hellos.  

The program

After lots of hugging and petting, the kids settle into their regular Monday night routine – pick a partner, a dog, and a book.

Some decisions are more difficult than others. Harlen Mitchell, 7, deliberates for several minutes about what book she wants to read.

"I wish Raider knew how to speak so he could tell me which one," she says.   

She decides the big, black Labrador would probably like several stories, plus the company of her friend, Mykala Gainey. The three amigos lie down on a rug and share the adventures of Penny and Panda.

The two first graders stroke Raider's fur as they read. Raider doesn’t really do anything, except listen.

This is exactly what the kids need, according to Joanna Tarr, children's case manager at the non-profit Solid Ground that manages the housing facility.

Does it work?

Tarr points to similar programs that have found dogs reduce the pressure kids feel as they learn and help them stick with it.

“The kids are always willing to read, whereas sometimes they don’t want to do the reading, they want someone to read to them," she says. "The amount of time they sit here for an hour reading is amazing, just to have that concentration and that amount of time. And then just the calmness of it really relaxes them.”

She says that’s rare for these kids, whose families jostled from shelter to shelter or other temporary homes until they arrived at this permanent housing complex.

"A lot of the kids are quite far behind in school," she says. "This is definitely a time for them to catch up and move forward."

Other benefits

Turns out, the dogs get something from the experience, too.   

Lesley Anderson, director of Puppy Power, a 4-H group that trains service animals, says it’s crucial to expose the dogs to different environments to teach them how to tune out distractions.

“It’s great having a whole passel full of kids petting them or laying on them, or getting up and stepping over them.”

The effort’s only been underway for about six months, but it appears to be producing results. At least from Harlen’s point of view. She commends her friend, Mykala, for getting better at reading while she, herself, has been inspired to do a little writing:

"I wrote Raider a letter," she says, "because I like him so much and I don't get to talk to him every day."

Of course, when the letter arrived in the mail, it was read to him and the rest of the dogs.