Meet Mr. Gibbs, a 5-year-old golden retriever skilled in hunting, tracking, obedience – and helping youngsters learn to read.
His handler-owner, Terrie Leafstedt, a 59-year-old resident of Hope Mills, 73 miles southeast of Raleigh, volunteers in parochial, private and public schools in Cumberland County every other week. She and her dog help about 30 or 40 youngsters per month with reading.
The Leafstedt Team learned its skills through Therapy Dogs International by passing a course of learning and testing that determines whether dog and handler are suitable for working with adults and children in unusual circumstances.
“The reading program encourages children to read by providing a nonjudgmental listener and furry friend to read (to) that won’t laugh at them if they make a mistake or stumble over a word …,” according to the TDI website. “The children learn to associate reading with being with the dog and begin to view reading in a positive way. Over time, the child’s reading ability and confidence can improve because they are practicing their skills, which will make them enjoy reading even more.”
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Leafstedt says Mr. Gibbs achieved therapy and reading dog status by demonstrating “he would politely sit, stay and come when called, that he was not aggressive with people or other dogs, that he would not react to loud noises, and in other words, he would behave and do what he was told. Mr. Gibbs acts as if he is listening to the reader by moving his eyebrows and placing his paw on the book,” she said. “A dog changes the mood of a room. The kids are much more relaxed and calm.”
Dr. Barbara Sherman, a clinical associate professor at the NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine, spent several years taking her rescue dog, a retriever mix, into the classrooms of Moore County Schools.
“I did it with my daughter as her high school community service project. She inspired me and I was charmed by the students’ orientation toward the dog,” she said. “They would pick out a book, point out the pictures and tell the story to the dog. In a sense, they became the teacher and they were sharing the joy of teaching and sharing their knowledge with the dog.”
Dr. Sherman, whose specialties include animal behavior, says she may eventually study the dog-youngster reading program from a scientific point of view.
Patty McEwen, president of the Tar Heel Golden Retriever Club and resident of Cary, delights in recounting children reading to her dog.
“Kids sometimes are intimidated reading to adults, but with a dog they open up and have no fears,” she said. “The kids would read or tell stories to my dog. They didn’t pay any attention to me.”
Julie Cummins, a first grade teacher at St Patrick Catholic School in Fayetteville, saw firsthand what happens with a therapy-reading dog. A youngster in her class was finding little results with a reading therapist and reading tutor. The child refused to read in front of her peers for fear of making a mistake. When Gibbs came into the picture, attitudes and skills changed.
“Working with the dog boosted her confidence. Gibbs would sit and appear to be looking at the pictures,” she said. “Her phonics and reading grades went up. She now reads in front of the class; she is definitely more confident.”
No official dog reading programs are known to exist in North Carolina public schools. Handlers are volunteers devoted to helping children through dogs, either in a group or individually.
Several dog reading programs exist in the United States. One of the first, Reading Educational Assistance Dogs, dates to 1999. On its website, the organization lists reasons why dogs are ideal reading companions: They “help increase relations and lower blood pressure, listen attentively, do not laugh, judge or criticize; allow children to proceed at their own pace and are less intimidating than peers.”