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Breaking barriers with canine friends



By Heidi Wicks

In addition to creating the province’s future educators, Memorial University’s Faculty of Education thinks puppies can help young readers turn pages.

Kathryn Cooper, a graduate student in the faculty and a teacher, and Dr. Ursula Kelly, in co-operation with the St. John's Public Libraries, are hoping to establish a Paws to Read program in St. John's and surrounding areas.

“Any child who wants to read to a dog can register,” explained Ms. Cooper, adding that there is no cost to register. “Being available at school during school hours would further reduce barriers for children with no transportation to and from a public library. The program is geared towards shy, reluctant or struggling readers – but anyone can participate.”

Paws to Read, a registered program of Therapeutic Paws of Canada, is volunteer-based and pairs children and certified therapeutic dogs in a library or school setting to encourage and to enhance reading enjoyment and success. The extraordinary benefits for children have been well-documented in educational and medical research.

“Oftentimes, the children who join have not experienced a comfort, joy and success in reading in more traditional settings (such as classrooms),” said Dr. Kelly. “The one-on-one nature of the program, the company of therapeutic dogs and a relaxed, comfortable setting removes some of the barriers to reading success – allowing the child to gain increased confidence and to begin to thrive in reading.”

Programs are in place across Canada and the United States. Ms. Cooper and Dr. Kelly are in the very preliminary stages of establishing a program here in Newfoundland and Labrador, but first need to establish a bank of dog owners whose animals may meet the strict requirements for certification to work with children who need encouragement learning to read, or who are below the level of their peers.

“There are strict codes of conduct, both for dogs and handlers,” Dr. Kelly explained. “Any organization which certifies therapy dogs has an extensive set of health, hygiene and behaviour standards a dog must meet before certification is granted. This strict code ensures that dogs are properly trained to work with children. As well, a dog must have demonstrated a history of adhering to these high standards before certification is granted. There are high standards for volunteers, including regular police checks.”

Ultimately, Dr. Kelly and Ms. Cooper wish to see children experience increased joy and success in reading through the installation of this program.

“Research suggests that increased confidence in their own abilities and success in reading will be the case for most participants, but our ties to companion animals, in this case dogs, can remind us of the wonder and power of the natural world. It increases children’s capacity to care for nature and for one another,” Dr. Kelly smiled, adding that such a program will bring education into the community, and the community into education – breaking down barriers among institutions and allowing a focus on the common pursuit of important goals.

Ms. Cooper added that in this time of environmental crisis, bonding with an animal will help children see their world as a delicate place and one in need of protection.

“For the dogs and handlers, it presents a new opportunity to bond and give something special to the community,” she furthered.

If you know of a dog and handler team who may fit the requirements, please contact Dr. Ursula Kelly, ukelly@mun.ca, or Kathryn Cooper, kcooper@mun.ca, to inquire. For specific requirements for dogs and handlers, please visit www.tpoc.ca/TherapyDogEvaluation.asp.

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