Readers have audience that's all ears

The Baltimore Sun

Radar seemed to be listening intently as Christian Tager read a book with the title Wolf.

"Radar likes my reading," said Christian, 7, after he finished reading the book. "He kisses me when I read to him."

Christian, a second-grader at Logan Elementary School in Dundalk, and Radar, a Great Dane, were one of 15 teams participating on a recent afternoon in a reading enrichment program called PAWS -- as in "Pets Are Wonderful Support."

Under the eight-week program, 31 Logan second-graders meet after school for one hour to read to a dog and its owner.

The program is the first of its kind in the county. But the idea that dogs can help children master reading isn't a new one, said Rob Houston, a representative of Therapy Dogs International.

The New Jersey-based volunteer organization started a similar program in the 1990s, and it has grown to include several schools and libraries throughout the nation.

"A lot of students are afraid to read aloud," he said. "It's embarrassing to them. But dogs are non-judgmental. They just want to hear the child's voice. As a result of the positive experiences children have with dogs, their grades go up and reading becomes a positive experience for them."

Karen Gieron, 44, of Perry Hall, who brought a Shih Tzu named Cozmo to Logan Elementary, also said that the children benefit from the nonthreatening setting.

"There is no one there telling them to slow down or speed up their reading," said Gieron, who is a resource teacher for the county's public schools. "It is so much fun to watch the children with the dogs and to work with them in this environment."

The local program was funded with a $1,000 grant. Each child gets a free book and a soothing audience to read to, said Elizabeth Hatton, a resource teacher for county schools who started the program.

"There has been a lot of research about therapy dogs and how they have helped to improve the skills of struggling readers," said Hatton, who is the president of the Baltimore County reading council. "So we wanted to give it a try."

The program was launched last month and ends in June. The children also work on a reading assignment at each weekly session. Educators read to the children to begin each session.

To find dogs, Hatton contacted the Pets on Wheels program. Fifteen of the volunteers for that program signed up to participate in the PAWS program.

The breeds of dogs in the program include Dalmatian, bulldog, greyhound and golden and Labrador retrievers. Each team of volunteer and dog was assigned two pupils.

Some of the children needed a little bit of time to warm up to the dogs, said Radar's owner, Stephanie Nowowiejski.

"On the first day, one of the students that reads to Radar was afraid of him," said Nowowiejski, a resident of Parkville. "But now he comes up to Radar, and he isn't scared at all."

The main purpose of the program is to get children who typically have difficulty reading more excited about it, Hatton said.

"For some of these kids, the books they receive in this program are the only books they have," she said. "And it's the only opportunity they have to be around dogs. This program is a chance to help these children become lifelong readers."

The students are finding that the dogs are not only a captive audience but forgiving listeners.

"I get embarrassed when I read out loud to humans," said Christian Tager, the boy who read to Radar. "When I read to people, they get excited when I read the big words well, and it embarrasses me."

Eight-year-old Ashley Dent finds the reading sessions with a Pomeranian named Roxy are interactive.

"When I read, the dog listens and tries to flip the pages," the second-grader said. "I think the dog wants to see what is going to happen next."

Madison Boswell also interacts with her assigned dog, Baxter, a Chinese crested.

"When I read to Baxter and there is a dog in the book, I bark," the 7-year-old said. "He looks at me and kind of smiles. I make sounds for cows, and when I make a meow sound, he expects a cat to be in the room."

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