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Dogs lend a paw for reading fun

Education: READ program helps SCV students improve reading skills

Posted: June 24, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 24, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Elizabeth Quiles, 8, reads to Merced, an 8-year-old Australian shepard, from the book “Henry the Dog with no Tail.” The Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program is offered at the Valencia Library and the Santa Clarita Community Center.

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Angel Castro of Newhall pets Sparky and settles in to read to the Great Dane. Sparky is curled up next to Castro on a blanket at the Santa Clarita Community Center in Newhall. The third-grader, who reads at a fifth-grade level, enjoys this bi-weekly ritual.

“When I read to a dog, I know he’s listening,” Castro said with a shy smile, his hand leaving Sparky’s neck only to the turn the next page.

Sparky is one of several dogs that are part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program through Paws for Healing of the Santa Clarita Valley, a Delta Society Pet Partner Affiliate Group.

The mission of the READ program is to improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of registered therapy teams as literacy mentors.

Paws for Healing provides the READ program at the Valencia Library, as well as the Santa Clarita Community Center.
“It’s a popular program. Every week, the kids ask me if the dogs are coming in for them to read to. They really like it,” said Lauren Vallin-Flores, a recreation leader at the center.

Studies have shown physiological benefits of interacting with animals include increased relaxation and lowered blood pressure. For children who are behind their peers in reading skills and feel intimidated reading aloud in a group, reading to a dog can be a fitting solution.

“There was a need with children here requiring additional reading help,” said Julie Calderon, Santa Clarita Community Center supervisor. “When Paws for Healing came to us and said it had dogs trained to work with kids, it was a perfect fit.”

Calderon said the program is effective and successful.

“We see children really coming out of their shells. Reading to a dog, who’s non-judgmental, improves their skills. I’ve seen it every time Paws for Healing comes here,” she said. “The trainers ask questions on the dog’s behalf and the kids just love that. We have one child here that hardly speaks, but when he’s reading to a dog, he just blossoms.”

On this afternoon, Jonathan Gonzalez, 10, was reading to Merced, an Australian Shepherd owned and handled by Chris Talbott.

Gonzales and Merced were sprawled out on a soft fleece blanket in the center’s small library, which was now completely occupied with dogs and children. A line formed outside for those waiting a turn.

“It’s pretty good to read to a dog. It helps me read in school, too. It’s good for my education and it’s fun, too,” Gonzalez said.

The interaction is also positive for the dogs, said Talbott, who has been volunteering with Paws for Healing for the past 18 months.

“Merced’s a rescue dog and he just seemed to have a knack for this work. He loves people, especially kids. We also volunteer at a special education school, to help with speech therapy. Dogs don‘t see differences or disabilities. They‘re comfortable with everyone,” Talbott said. “It’s so wonderful to watch a child who is shy after reading to a dog. You really see their growth.”

Sharon Rendall, Sparky’s owner, started as a volunteer with the program nine years ago with her Great Dane Barkley.
“I worked in pediatrics for 19 years before I retired. I wanted to give back to the community, but couldn’t figure out what to do,” Rendall said. “Then I saw an article in The Signal about therapy dogs and prepared Barkley for testing. I love animals and kids, so it was perfect for me.”

Rendall retired Barkley, now 9, a few years ago and started training Sparky, Barkley’s son, to fill his paws.

All dogs involved with Paws for Healing are certified Canine Good Citizens, which requires dogs and trainers to go through a series of tests designed to ensure a dog’s temperament and ability to interact positively in any given situation.

“They have to be able to handle crowds, noise and distractions such as people with crutches or wheelchairs,” Rendall said.
Like Barkley, Sparky, now 6, passed with flying colors. He and Rendall spend their free time cheering up pediatric patients in hospitals and helping children learn how to read.

Their efforts are appreciated by Samantha Ocampo, 7, of Newhall. She selected a colorful picture book and sat down to read with Sparky.

“I love doing this with dogs,” said Ocampo, 7, as she sat next to the massive Great Dane, whose eyes were closed in contentment.

When finished, Ocampo giggled as she gave Sparky a biscuit. He crunched it happily, a tasty reward for a job well done.

The Santa Clarita Community Center is located at 22421 Market St., Newhall. For information, call (661) 286-4006. For information on Paws For Healing, visit www.paws4healing.info/santa_clarita_chapter.htm.

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