by Martha Michael
There is a group of Santa Clarita residents who believe reading is fundogmental. Several times a month, local children and their parents line up at a designated library to take a turn reading to friendly canines who are Reading Education Assistance Dogs.
Known as R.E.A.D., the goal of the program is to improve the reading skills of children by enabling them to practice in a safe, comfortable atmosphere. It was launched in 1999 by the Utah-based non-profit, Intermountain Therapy Animals, an organization that says dogs are ideal reading companions because they:
•Increase relaxation and lower blood pressure
•Do not judge, laugh or criticize
•Allow children to proceed at their own pace
•Are less intimidating than peers
Several of the dogs even have their own business cards and bookmarks with collages of engaging photos from their daily lives. During the Sulphur Springs School District spring break, a crowd of dozens gathered at the Jo Anne Darcy Canyon Country Library for the Read to a Dog program.
Ralph Steger and “Ras,” an Australian shepherd, greyhound, collie and Vizsla mix, have been a therapy team for 17 years. Ras was rescued by Steger from the Lancaster Animal Shelter and they participate in similar programs at colleges, high schools, and in hospice settings.
“Any place they need us,” Steger said. “When I was younger we didn’t have enough money for a dog; but once I was grown, I’ve pretty much had one on my hip at all times.”
At least two of the dog owners at the library were local teachers.
Newhall resident Patty Berman was one of them, a first-grade teacher in Canyon Country who was making her first appearance at the library’s reading session since she was on spring break. Berman brought “Rico,” who just became a registered therapy dog, rolling him up in his stroller.
Pat Fellows was one of the original teachers at Fair Oaks Community School in Santa Clarita. Now retired, she has been bringing her Havanese therapy dog, “Charlie,” to the Canyon Country Library for a year. “It is something to combine my love of pets and children,” Fellows said. Two-year-old Charlie, like other Havanese, has a soft double coat of something resembling “hair,” not fur, so they are hypoallergenic, which is compatible with their interaction with members of the public.
Michael Siwula and 18-year-old Blondie have been a part of the program since it began in 2001. The dog lover and his two canines, Blondie and Rio, take part in the dog therapy program at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, as well as Valley Presbyterian Hospital and Kaiser Medical Center in Panorama City. Siwula has had Blondie since she was 8 weeks old, and he has had Rio from the age of 6 months, which is normally too late to start training, he said. Rio was smart enough to defy the odds, however, and is now certified as a Diabetic Alert Dog, or DAD.
One pair at last month’s library visit have a name for themselves. “Romeo” and Louise Elerding of Valencia (pictured) are authors. Last year, “Romeo, Romeo … Fetch Us Thy Manners!” was published by Westcom Press, written by Juliet and Romeo (Elerding and her dog). She also did the illustrations. A description of the book on Amazon reads:
Romeo, an intuitive Standard Poodle, loves good manners and the wonderful benefits that dogs get from using them. “Romeo, Romeo . . . Fetch Us Thy Manners” is packed with valuable advice and training tips for dog lovers and owners. The book will inspire you to work with your dog, using positive reinforcement and natural motivators. Learn what dogs truly need to thrive, and what stimulates them to behave in a way that will make you both proud.
Elerding is an author of six other books as well, but just partnered with Romeo about two years ago, visiting Alzheimer’s patients and others who need them.
“Standard poodles are extremely intelligent and need mental exercise,” Elerding explained. “They need purpose, these poodles who think they’re people. They’re very calm and intuitive, and they don’t shed, so they are hypoallergenic.”
The twice monthly R.E.A.D. program is one of librarian Kathy Widen’s favorite parts of her job at the Jo Anne Darcy Canyon Country Library.
“I start taking a list of names beginning at 3:00 and at 3:30 is when we start,” Widen said. “The kids usually range from 5 years old to 12 and when they get on the list they pick one or two books, depending on their reading level. When it’s their turn they can choose to sit down at any one of the dogs that isn’t with a child already. They have 10-15 minutes to read to the dog. It’s so encouraging, because at that age, especially when they’re just learning to read, it’s very stressful for them to read out loud. When they walk in, of course a dog is not going to tell them when they get a word wrong. The time goes by so fast for them.”
There are typically four or five dogs in attendance, Widen said. But when fewer dog owners show up, the kids are always willing to partner up and share.
“It’s such a variety of different dogs,” Widen said. “The dog owners are so fabulous. I think they enjoy it as much as I do, and the kids do, and the parents do.”
The librarian is impressed by the dog owners’ level of participation. “When it’s a child just learning how to read they’ll help them,” she said. “They usually spend a couple of minutes telling each child the breed of the dog and how long it’s been doing this and the different places and things the dogs do. It’s a very informative, fun program.”
There is a rotation of about 11 dogs, so dog owners can take turns showing up on a given day, depending on their availability.
“They are so very generous. They are such a wonderful group,” Widen added. “They go out of their way to serve this community. Once they start, they’re usually hooked.”
A calendar for the read-to-a-dog program held in Santa Clarita libraries are online at http://santaclaritalibrary.evanced.info/signup/calendar.