When Belgian Tervuren puppy Spree was 14 weeks old, Cindy Knowlton took her to a pet expo. “It was a large event, massively crowded,” the retired teacher from Glenwood, Md., says of the indoor exposition. Although the scene resembled a veritable free-for-all, Knowlton’s little pup demonstrated an innate ability to “read” people’s needs, even amidst the bedlam.
Knowlton recalls the moment her young Terv zeroed in on one particular fellow. “We were walking along when I heard a commotion behind me,” she says. “I turned around to find a very large developmentally disabled man running in our direction.” A few paces behind trailed his caregiver. Knowlton continues, “So they’re both running toward Spree, and at that moment I looked down, and … she just got this [peaceful look] about her and turned around and sat.” When the man reached out to the little pup, Spree licked his finger as gently as she could. Knowlton thought, “If she’s doing this at 14 weeks, I should probably look into a program for her where she can continue to interact with people in this way.” That’s when the former director of the Sylvan Learning Center in Crofton, Md., contacted National Capital Therapy Dogs, Inc. “That lead me to the R.E.A.D. program,” she says.
R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) is the creation of Intermountain Therapy Animals of Salt Lake City. According to the organization’s website, the program “improves children’s reading and communication skills by employing a powerful method: reading to an animal.” Each of Knowlton’s five dogs, including Tervurens Spree and Groovy, mixed-breed Swift and German Shepherd Dogs Yogi and Diva, has visited Baltimore and D.C. area schools through National Capital. “As a former teacher, I was very interested in R.E.A.D,” Knowlton says of the program that allows each dog’s unique personality to shine.
“Diva just started this year, so she’s pretty green,” she acknowledges. Nonetheless, the Shepherd immediately understood one little girl’s particular fear of dogs. According to Knowlton, “Instead of stepping forward to greet the girl, she actually kept her distance and lay down so this little girl had a freedom of space to be where she wanted [so she could] feel safe. Diva even faced away from her in the opposite direction.” Knowlton says that Diva was forward with the other kids, even leaning in to let them touch her, yet — with this one little girl — she took it upon herself to take off some of the pressure. “The girl is still not thrilled about petting her, but she’s at least brushing Diva now, which is pretty cool,” she shares.
Knowlton explains how kids read individually to the dogs for about 15 minutes at a time. “They choose the books, and a lot of times they bring books about dogs,” she notes. “As the handler, I’m just the facilitator. Everything that happens in that session is about the dog and the kid together and whatever the student has to share with the dog that day.” The program allows students and dogs to make connections, with the handler picking up on cues from both. Knowlton explains, “If I have a student who’s reading very quietly or who is reading too quickly, I might say, ‘You know, Diva’s having a hard time understanding what you’re saying. Could you speak up [or slow down] a little bit?’”
Knowlton says she is fascinated with the connections dogs make with people — and people make with dogs. However, she’s quick to point out that therapy dog programs such as R.E.A.D. do not have a one-size-fits-all curriculum. “Although I think the quality of connection is important, I think each individual therapy dog setting has its own bullet points, if you will, on the type of dog that would do well in that situation,” she says. “Just as we have our personalities and individual preferences, so do the dogs.” For dogs consumed with eye contact, R.E.A.D. provides interaction that benefits everyone involved — both two- and four-legged. “There’s just a real depth of connection that a lot of times kids with confidence problems, or even adults, really need [in order] to be able to draw out of their shyness,” says Knowlton. “I’m just fascinated by the connections.”