Dog helps kids get over reading fears

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJuly 15, 2012 

— Swimming pools and PlayStations beckoned, but on a summer Sunday in Raleigh, kids lined up at the Cameron Village library for the chance to read stories to a dog.

As listeners go, it’s hard to find a better audience than a 5-year-old, freckle-nosed golden retriever mix named Gizmo. He doesn’t mind if you flub a word. He doesn’t care if you skip a page. He’ll even sit through three straight readings of “Biscuit.”

So if you’re a new reader, maybe a little skittish about doing it out-loud, he provides stress-free practice.

“He has a tongue just like my cat,” noted Ryan Kelley, a Raleigh third-grader. “Except bigger.”

Using therapy dogs to build reading skills is a growing idea, boosted by a 2010 study that confirms children perform better after telling stories to a pooch. Children new to reading may view it as a chore or feel intimidated by a crowd. Interacting with a dog, kids agree, is more relaxing than with a fellow first-grader.

Gizmo and his handler Nancy Moxley travel from library to classroom as part of a group called See Spot Read, inviting kids to share their favorites. As she read a passage from the “Warrior Cats” series, 11-year-old Hannah Armistead held Gizmo’s paw. At the end, she fed him a duck-shaped treat.

“They’re less self-conscious if they’re reading to a dog,” Moxley said. “It just gives them the confidence they need.”

Preston Swigart, just 5 and starting kindergarten, read Gizmo a whole picture book – “Sally Goes to the Beach” – without help from his parents. While Cassi Maruna, 4, told the story of the yellow puppy named Biscuit, her father raved about her appetite for books.

“We just brought back 40 books,” he said. “Hey, Cassi, want to tell them why you’re interested in snakes?”

“Because I got to pet one!”

“Why else?”

“Mama got bit by a copperhead!”

By the end of the story, Gizmo had dozed off.

But he lifted his head at the finish and licked the page: his highest compliment.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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