Cuddling with dogs gives young readers confidence

Area libraries and nursing homes are going to the dogs — literally — by bringing in certified Reading Education Assistance (READ) dogs.

“It’s fun to see kids, who are shy about reading, read to Annie. They really relax,” said LeeAnne Laskey, READ volunteer and owner of four-year-old Annie the Golden Retriever. “Annie doesn’t care about how you read — just that you enjoy reading.”

Annie the Golden Retriever says goodbye to Brady, Erin and Evalyn Green, of Delano, after a 15-minute reading session at the Delano Public Library. Annie’s owner and handler, LeeAnne Laskey joins the group. Annie is a certified Reading Education Assistance Dog who, with Laskey, visits the Delano and Buffalo public libraries and nursing homes. (Sun staff photo by Susan Van Cleaf)

Annie the Golden Retriever says goodbye to Brady, Erin and Evalyn Green, of Delano, after a 15-minute reading session at the Delano Public Library. Annie’s owner and handler, LeeAnne Laskey joins the group. Annie is a certified Reading Education Assistance Dog who, with Laskey, visits the Delano and Buffalo public libraries and nursing homes. (Sun staff photo by Susan Van Cleaf)

Laskey and Annie connect with readers, both young and old, regularly at nursing homes and at public libraries in Delano and Buffalo.

In Delano reading dog visits are in their second year and are called “Dog Day Afternoons.” The Rockford Library recently brought in five-year-old Kirk the farm collie for “Reading to a Dog.” At both libraries reading dogs come in once a month and library patrons sign up in advance for time slots.

Reading Education Assistance Dogs is a program of Intermountain Therapy Animals, which started up the program in 1999. Laskey and Annie volunteer through a Minnesota arm, called Pet Partner.

Pre-schoolers through middle schoolers have discovered that a 15-minute visit with Annie is a way to “unwind” after school, Laskey said. “Especially in the winter months kids need a healthy outlet.”

Annie has a way of making kids “really comfortable,” Laskey said. “They usually come and read to her right away. If they are shy, they can bring a friend. The friend can see what it’s all about. It’s not intimidating. It makes reading a nice experience.”

She added, “This is another way for children to gain confidence in their reading ability. Not only do kids pick up more and more confidence with reading, they also connect with an animal at the same time.”

Before kids leave, Annie encourages them to check out books and show them to her next time.

Annie is one of two dogs in the Laskey family, which hails from Buffalo. “I love kids and reading and for me this is a win-win situation,” she said.

Her love for kids, reading and dogs prompted her to sign up herself and Annie for therapy dog training at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley. From there the two of them went on to reading dog training.

Why would parents want to use dogs to help children gain confidence in reading?

Intermountain Therapy Animals explains on its website, “Learning to read is often less about intellectual limitation than about overcoming fears. Animals are ideal reading companions because they:

• Help increase relaxation and lower blood pressure

• Listen attentively

• Do not judge, laugh, or criticize

• Allow children to proceed at their own pace

• Are less intimidating than peers”

The website continues, “When a READ dog is listening, the environment is transformed, a child’s dread is replaced by eager anticipation, and learning occurs.”

Delano Library patrons were asked about their experiences with Annie.

Amber Becker, of Delano, said she brings three-year-old Henry regularly to see Laskey and Annie. “For us it’s a nice opportunity to come out, snuggle with a dog and meet new people,” Becker said.

Laskey reads to both Henry and Annie. “He loves to be read to,” Becker said.

“It was so much fun, we wouldn’t want to miss it,” said a mother, as she rushed her six and seven year old daughters off to Girl Scouts. “We want to do it again. It is well worth it.”

A regular library patron has been watching what has been happening with Annie and kids. “Annie has been so popular,” she said. “She’s such a lovely dog. Kids respond to her. They keep coming back. She’s the cuddliest dog.”

As Laskey’s day in Delano ended, Brady, Erin and Evalyn Green, of Delano experienced Annie as a three-some.

Their mother said this was their first visit. “We’ll be back,” she said.

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