Animals lend an ear and help children improve reading and social skills

Nancy Brooks is used to being overlooked. As the volunteer supervisor and a major participant in the Animal Humane Society’s Animal Ambassador Program, she spends a lot of time with her Shetland sheepdog Sassy – not that anyone would notice. “When people see us coming they say ‘Sassy’s here!’ and I’m invisible,” laughs Brooks, whose dog is so popular he has his own business cards.

Brooks is happy to take a backseat to Sassy, who is one of 41 registered therapy animals in the three-year-old program. Many Animal Ambassadors provide comfort in health care facilities like nursing homes and hospitals, while others encourage and improve reading skills in children through the Animal Ambassadors Reading Fun (AARF) program.

AARF participants make appearances at Hennepin County Libraries throughout the metro area and meet with children of all ages levels who want to practice reading in a comfortable environment – which means no teasing, no judgment, and no criticism. “A dog is never going to laugh at a kid for mispronouncing a word; it’s just going to listen,” explains Brooks. “The kids get caught up in the reading, and they don’t realize how much they’ve read. It’s really heartwarming to see.”

Animal Ambassadors and their owners complete months of training before they qualify to participate in AARF. The dogs must learn to sit still for long periods of time, interact with large groups of people, and follow basic commands. Handlers also learn how to minimize stress in their pet, maintain a safe environment for the animal, and continuously retain control over a pet. “We don’t just plop a dog down,” Brooks says. “We explain what the responsibilities are involved in a reading session, how to guide the reader to read to the animal, how to allow that one-on-one reading experience to take place.”

The current group of Animal Ambassadors includes two guinea pigs, a rabbit, two cats, and 36 dogs. Carol Pawlicki and her rabbit Sweet Pea have been in the program for two and a half years and enjoy watching the children improve their reading week to week. “The children think it’s so cool to read to a bunny, and the bunny gets into the books, too, when she nudges the pages with her nose. The kids get involved in showing her the pictures and telling the story and aren’t embarrassed about their reading skills,” says Pawlicki.

Research supports what many people sense about the benefit of an animal’s presence. A study at Minnesota State University-Moorhead and the University of North Dakota on the value of a dog in a classroom of children with severe emotional disorders found that over an eight-week period, the animal contributed to students’ overall emotional stability by preventing and/or de-escalating emotional crises, helping teach students about responsibility, and improving their attitudes toward school.

Despite such evidence, Brooks says schools have been slow to recognize the benefits offered by animals. “It’s taken quite a bit of time to convince school officials of the advantages things like our reading program offer and how it calms children and teaches them to focus on other issues,” she says.

One school taking advantage of the positive influence of animals is Kenwood Trail Middle School in Lakeville. Last year, special education psychologist Holly Ryan won a grant from the Dakota County Mental Health Collaborative to bring in dogs twice a week for two 12-week sessions to work with emotionally and behaviorally challenged students. The students learned anger management, patience, self-confidence, and how to work on a challenging task to achieve success. At the end of both sessions, Ryan was impressed with the changes in the students. “We found that the animals reduced aggression, increased attendance, and supported better teamwork and cooperation among the children,” she says.

Ryan was also impressed with the feedback from the students, which she says included statements like “I liked being able to share my feelings with my dog,” “I learned how to tell when my dog needs a moment,” and “If you go through life being calm, you will be fine.”

Thanks to the success of the program, Lakeville plans to repeat it this year and add a reading program similar to AARF for sixth and seventh graders who are four to five years below their appropriate reading level. “We have tried more typical strategies for improving reading, and they were ineffective; we think this approach will help give the kids an increase in comprehension and fluency,” Ryan says.

“When we realized how beneficial the animals were for the children and that they really learned a lot, we were excited to try the reading program,” said Ryan. “The kids get a ton of little life-learning lessons when working with animals.”

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