Dogs and Kids LEAP into Reading
Dogs. They are man’s and woman’s best friend. Dogs can be loyal pals, faithful guardians, partners in joy. Windsor, Duffy, and Sam (their real names) all provide comfort in the most turbulent of storms. Lassie, well, where would Timmy be without his dog? I shudder to think. And don’t forget, dogs help kids to read.
Wait…what? That’s right. Just ask the many kids in our area who know that Fido and Rover (not their real names) are local heroes. For these pups, and their more than 75 canine partners, helping kids read is a heroic canine cause. It gives a new meaning to “teacher’s pet”.
Literacy Education Assistance Pups, or LEAP, is a group of volunteer pet owners and their dogs that bring this revolutionary reading experience to children at Sussex County libraries, elementary schools, and other locales providing services for kids, as well as facilities for older or disabled adults.
According to LEAP Director Diane Miller, the program began when the minister at Bethel Christian School in Lewes approved a dog-as-reading-mentor program idea. Soon there were 35 kids honing their reading skills with the one-on-one help of seven volunteers and their non-human teachers. The program spread throughout Sussex County, and today LEAP has grown to more than 75 teams serving 18 facilities and is still growing. Miller herself is a mentor/partner with dog Griffin. She knows how special the bond is between dog and human. It makes volunteering for the program rewarding and fun.
All kinds of dogs participate in the program. Some are beloved household pets; some are trauma dogs who travel out-of-state to comfort people hit by disaster. But all dogs go through the same training and are calm, well-behaved, and most of all, patient.
I was lucky enough to witness the program at work on a recent visit to Love Creek Elementary School. The morning began with a parade of cuddly canines marching into the main office for visitor sign-up. The pups looked sporty in their business blue bandannas. As they gathered, one teacher was overheard declaring “this is my favorite day!”.
I was met by Love Creek reading specialist Rosemary Lobodzinski, an 11-year veteran of the Cape Henlopen school district who has spent the last seven years at Love Creek. She began using the doggie reading program at Rehoboth Elementary, and brought the dogs with her to Love Creek when she transferred. “(Some children) are resistant to reading, but the dogs give them confidence and a willingness to read…dogs are non-judgmental”.
We were led to a large space out of the way of hallway traffic. Dogs and their owners were placed in strategic areas around the room. Then it became time for the kids to pair up with a dog/owner mentor.
I was curious. How would the little ones react to their reading assignments? For one, each child is given the option whether to participate. Then Ms. Lobodzinski encourages them to select the book they want to read with their furry friends.
Now came the real test. Kids ask excitedly “is it our turn today?” And soon it is! Young ones jump up and down at the opportunity. A recipe for chaos? I hadn’t counted on the skill of Ms. Lobodzinski and teachers like Shannon Davis to produce the best possible outcome for the students. It turns out that kids are MORE attentive when reading with their canine buddies. Ms. Davis said it best: “It’s a great opportunity for the kids, calming and stimulating at the same time…a chance to enjoy both reading and their companion.”
Advocates like Lobodzinski, Davis, and Miller are innovators that make the LEAP program work. They know that children who have participated in programs like LEAP have shown dramatic gains in reading levels and impressive improvement in self-esteem and other social skills. There are a lot of heroes in LEAP: the advocates, the owners/mentors who share their time and their pets, the kids who shed their fears and read aloud. And perhaps the biggest heroes of all—dogs like Bilbo and Griffin, Cooper and Cassie. They’re kids’ best friends. Come to a local library with your child and see for yourself. Lassie would be proud. ▼
The LEAP reading program is offered at many locations in Sussex County, Delaware, including schools, after-school and pre-school programs, and libraries. All of the library sessions are open to the publi —families can bring their children whenever the program is scheduled to spend a fun-filled evening reading with friendly dogs and their owners.
LEAP also offers programs for special needs adults and older folks at several locations. For more information on these programs or to volunteer, visit the LEAP website at leapdogde.org. LEAP is a partner with Faithful Friends in Wilmington, Delaware.
Michael Gilles is a playwright, actor, and director from Milton, and a regular contributor to Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.