August 20, 2001
Red Rover, red Rover, Let readers come over
by Jeanette Knutson
Conceptually, it may have seemed like any other summer library program for children, not unlike Storytelling by Book Bear, or Butterfly Bonanza, or Family Night Dinosaur Experience. But Reading with Rover turned out to be so much more.
Fashioned after R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs), a program begun in Salt Lake City's main public library in 1999, Bothell and Kenmore libraries' Reading with Rover encouraged school-aged children to read aloud to certified therapy dogs. The idea behind the program was to give children a chance to plow through a book with a calm, nonjudgmental audience: a dog. Twice a week, 15 to 20-minute blocks of reading time were appropriated to each young reader who signed up to settle on a couch next to "Rover." Originally targeted at boys and girls from 5 to 7, the eight-week program ended up appealing to younger kids and pre-teens as well.
"It was very popular with kids and parents," said co-organizer Mie-Mie Wu, children's librarian at Bothell Library.
Yet its success can't be measured with a yardstick, as Wu put it. "It's not about quanitative assessment. We're not a school. The mere exercise of reading, the enjoyment of reading, reading here [at the library] then reading at home, this is what the program was about. We have always wanted to have families read together. That's always been our goal," said Wu.
Well, if success can be measured by press coverage, Reading with Rover has certainly earned high marks. Eastside and metro newspapers, including The Woodinville Weekly, Northlake News and Valley View, covered the Rover story as early as July. USA Today had a newsbrief about it on Aug. 8. The Wall Street Journal wrote about the program's predecessor, R.E.A.D., on Aug. 9. A Palm Springs cable network covered the Rover story, as did a Minneapolis radio station. And last week, Cable News Network (CNN) came to Bothell Library to film a Reading with Rover segment for one of its broadcasts. Moreover, they're coming again to film interviews.
"I don't know the [network's] timetable or angle, ... but the kids did take to the camera," said Wu. "Of course some kids didn't want to be filmed, and that was fine. They still read off to the side, and the camera person turned the camera in another direction."
While some readers read quietly, if not shyly, others read on, unfazed. Becky Bishop, dog trainer, pet therapy evaluator, owner of Puppy Manners and volunteer program co-organizer, tells the story of young Max who read his first book ever, cover to cover, whilst being filmed by the CNN crew.
"Now remember, he had a camera on him and a boom mike overhead. When he finished, his mom came over to me with tears in her eyes and said, 'Becky, I just have to tell you. Max never read a book, cover to cover. At home, in two-three minutes, he's fed up.'"
Dan Elliott, Boeing employee, parent volunteer in the Brier Elementary School reading program, Pet Partner and co-organizer of the Reading with Rover program, knows how tough it is to get kids to read out loud Ñ and how beneficial it is to have them do it.
"I was amazed at how eager some of the kids were to do it. Sure, some were self-conscious, reluctant; but some kids carried on as if they didn't notice the camera and mike. ... They did really well. They filmed one child with one dog at a time. It wasn't a big stage production, but they probably filmed for an hour or so," said Elliott.
A 34-year nursing veteran, owner of Paws for Health, and Reading with Rover volunteer Dotti Snow just loves using animals in this type of situation. "It's the purest form of nursing I have ever been involved with. There is never a negative outcome. It's cost effective. It's just wonderful. And everyone who sees it in action agrees," said Snow.
But there's one problem. "It's a huge challenge finding the [dog/handler] teams," said Snow. "For every team we have, we have 1,000 hours of need [if you take into consideration the hospital, hospice, nursinghome, school and library work the teams do]."
"All 41 King County libraries are interested in the program," laughed Bishop, saying, "It's like a huge fire I'm trying to contain. I'm in the process of staging a major recruitment for dogs right now. We're looking for dogs who will accept petting, who are not agressive, dogs you can hug, tug and praise. Your dog would probably be a great therapy dog. You've probably got this little treasure living with you right there. These Pet Partner dogs need to be well-behaved, well-mannered, good family dogs. You know, if someone gave us $1 million right now, we wouldn't be about to bolster the program right away."
Bishop explained that the dogs need to be trained, as do the Pet Partner humans. The team has to pass a test to be certified. And that takes time.
The trainers are not looking for any particular breed of dog to become a Pet Partner. Poodles, Portuguese water dogs, lab-retrievers, bull mastiffs, Bijons, they all work equally well. They certainly don't have to be pure-breds, and rescue dogs will do as well as the "bought" ones, Snow explained. They just have to be 1 year or older and have a gentle temperment.
"We look for confidence, calmness, reliability and predictability in the animal Ñ and the human, said Snow. "A human or a dog can cause the team not to be certified as Pet Partners," she said.
Despite the supply and demand glitch Reading with Rover is experiencing, the program will be back at the Bothell Library this October. In the meantime, consulting volunteers plan to visit area schools a to get the names of kids with reading difficulties so that these children can be given a priority.
"We're reshaping the program in fall," said librarian Wu. "We want the readers to share more intimate spaces with their Pet Partners, [not be out in the middle of the library]. We want it to be a more concentrated, almost private session, so that the children pick up on the seriousness of the reading endeavor."
Those interested in volunteering as a Pet Partner can access puppymanners.com or pawsforhealth.org. Coming soon will be a readingwithrover.com Web site, as well. This site will feature dog profiles, "Rover's" favorite books, how to be a "Rover," things about literacy and dogs.