Talewaggers
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By Steve Chiotakis. Aired on Tuesday, July 31, 2001.

(AVONDALE) -- There isn't much cajoling that needs to be done for 6-year old Raven Madison to get on the North Avondale Library floor and open a book. She loves to read aloud. And she adores her audience.

Raven is quite fond of who's watching and listening to her. But her audience isn't a classmate or her teacher. Raven has borrowed the floppy ears of Josie-Ann, a gray, shorthaired Whippet, a breed of dog that resembles a greyhound. But Josie-Ann has no intention of running away.

Raven says Josie-Ann, and the other dogs in the Sit, Stay, Read! program at Birmingham Public Libraries, have the qualities she's looking for in reading companions.

"Fun. (They're fun.) Uh, pretty. (They're pretty) Lick you. (They lick you?) Ticklish. (laughs)"

Raven's mom - complete with ear-to-ear smile -- stands at a distance� watching the connection.

"I'm very very much proud of my daughter"

She says Raven's been reading ever since she had the ability to open a book. So it doesn't take much coaxing.

"She constantly wants to read, draw, write and just write out words, what have you."

But there are other kids who may become embarrassed and withdrawn because they don't read as well as Raven. To them, Beth Franklin says the warmth of a friendly animal can add magic to an otherwise dreaded assignment.

"The librarians actually select the children who are problems with reading, self-esteem issues� there's a lot of people that will make fun of, other children that will make fun of them if they read aloud...Therapy dog's not going to do that."

Franklin is the executive director of Hand-in-Paw therapy animals, which are the dogs used for 'Sit, Stay, Read! She, along with Birmingham Public Librarians, say it's a matter of being empathetic to a student: having to get up in front of a group of people - teachers; or worse, other students -- and perform a task -- in this case, read, the student is not likely to gain much confidence.

Now think about reading to a dog.

That was Sandi Martin's recommendation two years ago for a child reading program in Utah, which the Birmingham program is based on. Even she was skeptical at first.

"I thought I'd be laughed off the face of the earth."

In fact, the Salt Lake City nurse has gained praise from educators and parents all across the country for her approach to teaching literacy skills, called READ, or Reading Education Assistance Dogs. She says dogs are far less confrontational than people are, so kids feel natural and uninhibited with them.

"They know that the animal is non judgmental...part of it is because they know the animal doesn't read, but really, even if the animal could read, they know the animal is not going to make judgment calls about them."

And the numbers back her up. She kept track of ten at-risk students: kids who live in the inner city, had used drugs before or had excessive absenteeism. By the end of a 14-month period, every child's reading level had improved. One 3rd grade girl nearly doubled her reading level from a 3.4 to a 6.4 over the course of a year. And she says most of the children began to make it to school more often and showed improvement in self-confidence and self-esteem.

Which is music to a teacher's ear.

Beth Franklin says it's all in a day's work for dogs like Josie-Ann, who seems to enjoy all of the attention.

"And this makes it fun for the children. They've proven that if you can make something fun for a child, they're going to retain more and keep it longer."

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