How a dog can help a kid read better

A library in North Carolina joins a number of other schools and institutions in the country that are employing therapy dogs to help children improve reading skills and build self-esteem.

Ellen F. O'Connell/Hazleton Standard-Speaker/AP Photo/File
Ruby, a two-year-old yellow Lab, gives her seal of approval by kissing Sarah Greco as the 8-year-old reads a book to the certified therapy dog on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, at the Hazleton Public Library in Hazleton, Pa. The use of therapy dogs to help with children's reading and self-esteem issues is gaining attention around the United States.

Therapy is going to the dogs – and for kids in one North Carolina town, that’s a good thing.

The Fletcher Library in Henderson County, N.C. is now home to a program that helps kids tackle reading and self-esteem issues by letting them read to therapy dogs, according to The Associated Press.

Every week, children can arrange to spend time in the library with a pooch provided by New Jersey-based certification group Therapy Dogs International. The idea is to provide safe spaces where kids can practice reading and build confidence.

"[The dogs] bring this calmness and this peace to the children," Michelle Sheppard, whose daughter Adriana is part of the program, told the AP. "It’s just amazing. Just a short amount of time has such an impact in those moments that they share."

The program, aimed at children who have been diagnosed with learning and anxiety disorders, started in October, when owner Rachelle Sher offered her dog Springer’s services to the Fletcher Library, and a library assistant took her up on the proposal.

Springer’s success – and not just with the children – led the library administrators to reach out to Therapy Dogs International to recruit two more of the canines, according to the AP report.

"It's changing the whole atmosphere in the library," branch manager Cindy Fisher said. "It's not just our young readers. Adults who are trying to get jobs and they're using our computers to fill out resumes, they're so stressed out that it's just a nice change of pace for them."

Research shows that dogs make people feel better for a number of reasons. One is that they’re one of the few animal species that does not exhibit xenophobia, or fear of strangers, according to Brian Hare, founder and co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University.

"We've done research on this, and what we've found is that not only are most dogs totally not xenophobic, they're actually xenophilic – they love strangers!" Dr. Hare told National Geographic.

Studies also suggest that interacting with dogs helps regulate stress levels and breathing. Animal-assisted therapy in its various forms is catching on outside of hospitals, where they’ve traditionally been used. 

In 2012, therapy dogs were deployed to help children in Newtown, Conn., recover from the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, National Geographic reported.

In southwest Michigan, Healing Paws, which has been providing therapy dogs to hospitals in the area for 6 years, has launched a new program called “Canines for Kids.” The program is designed to teach kids to care for other living creatures and to provide an enhanced learning experience for special education students.

And in Pennsylvania, Roxy Reading Therapy Dogs has been doing everything from empowering kids to read to helping children in the court system get through lengthy, and often traumatic courthouse proceedings.

“Our dogs deliver self-esteem, relief from anxiety and fear, and a sense of well being,” the RRTD site reads, echoing the idea that’s inspiring dog therapy in Fletcher and around the country. “To a child who feels safe and relaxed, learning is accessible, and both physical and emotional healing is accelerated.”

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