Monday, June 29, 2009

Dogs, Camp and Reading

Yesterday, Jill dropped her son off for camp in a parking lot in the suburbs of Boston. It was Ian's first time at camp, and like most of the campers (new and old) the boys were nervous. It's not easy to leave your parents, whether you're 9 or 15. About half of the families had brought along their dogs as Jill would have if Shadow could fly in the cabin.

In the parking lot, both humans and canines could sense that the air was thick with emotions: excitement, nervousness, anticipation and fear. As the people and pets milled about, Jill noticed that virtually every kid bent down to pet the dogs as they walked by. Each time, Jill could see that the interaction melted away some of the nervousness and distracted the kid as he was about to leave his parents and his comfort zone behind. As the time for departure grew near, more kids and now parents were petting and smooching the dogs. As people flocked to the dogs, conversations were started and new friends found. Clearly, the dogs provided emotional support to everyone standing in the shadow of the buses.

Dogs are used in therapy for many of the same reasons they proved helpful in the parking lot. Dogs break down emotional barriers, offer unconditional and non-judgmental love and support, which encourages people to work through their stress.

Programs like Sit, Stay Read, Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.), Bidewee's Reading to Dogs Program, Reading with Rover, PAWS for Reading and many others around the country bring therapy dogs to schools, libraries and clubs to help children learn to read. When the kids, most of whom have poor literacy skills, read aloud to the dogs magic occurs. The dog listens attentively and never corrects, laughs or teases the child. The dog is a non-threatening listener and the children are relaxed and willing to try to read aloud. As a child's reading skills improve, so does the child's confidence and self-esteem. Teachers report that formerly hesitant students volunteer to read aloud and students develop a love of reading. Hard numbers back this up. (Look here too.)

So, whether kids are going to camp, learning to read or coping with other stressful situations, dogs are there to lend a helping hand -- er paw. This is one of the myriad reasons dogs why are man's (woman's and kids') best friend.

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