I wrote this article for a magazine recently and thought I’d share it here. For more information on Reading with Rover, please visit the website HERE.
Back in 1999 I received a phone call from MeiMei Wu, a dog loving librarian working at the King County Library in Bothell Washington. Summer was approaching and with that, as usual the kids section in the library would become a ghost town. Seems that in the summer, along with a school break kids take a break from reading as well. MeiMei. asked me if I would like to help her change all that. Because I’m a dog trainer and I have therapy dogs Mei Mei thought I would be a good contact to help set up reading sessions where kids read aloud to dogs. I was not so sure about this idea, “won’t the kids see right through it? It’s like we are tricking them to read? “ On the other hand I thought it would be “cute”, “sweet”, my dog would love it, but nothing that would really have any long lasting benefit to the kids. Of course this ended up that MeiMei had a great idea and boy, was I wrong. I think not only did we change the summer reading population at the library, we may have changed the world! Ok, maybe a stretch but I do think time will tell! Only a few weeks into the summer and several news organizations came out to film what we where doing, “Reading to a dog? Helps kids? What?” One of those news organizations was CNN, national news. Next thing we knew, we had gone what we call today, “gone viral!” I had clients calling me from airports, seems our story was being promoted as a human interest story so it was being seen by a lot of people from all over the world. It was becoming obvious that because dogs are non judgmental creatures, they are the perfect reading buddy for a child with challenges.
The line of children at the library became so long that we actually had to make appointments for the kids to read to the dogs. My friend Dottie Snow, who also had therapy dogs and I started recruiting more teams to meet the demands that summer.
I would be lying if I did not say that my motivation in the beginning was slightly selfish, I thought from dog training business perspective “what a great way to market what I do, get my name out there!” but that all changed when Animal Planet sent a production crew from England to Seattle to film our Reading with Rover program at Woodmoor elementary school. This was going to be part of a two hour Jane Goodall special called “When Animals Talk” During the interviews, one of the kids, Kassidy who had leukemia since age two made this comment “I think it’s the dogs job to make you feel safe” and this comment was like an arrow that pierced through my heart because I knew what Kassidy was going through so the thought that our reading dogs could create a sense of “safe” feelings for her was remarkable. Reading with Rover is about feeding the heart and soul of not just our community of children but it’s a huge part of our lives, the handlers of the dogs as well. That summer Kassidy died of leukemia. Her experience with our dogs changed not only my life but our mission. Today we not only help children with reading challenges but autistic children, children with cerebral palsy or other physical limitations. Any child with a special need can benefit from the experience they are having with one of our D.R.E.A.M dog teams. Not only are these dogs special, I have to say the dedicated people that hold the leash and sit back and let the magic happen are special as well.
Reading with Rover has grown from 3 reading dogs in a small library in Bothell Washington to over 120 ready teams, helping kids all over the Puget Sound. Since our segment aired on Animal Planet seven years ago I to this day get emails from all over the world, India, Germany, Australia, England, Mexico. There are now reading dog programs nation wide and also in Europe as well. Their groups have different names but it’s the same concept, dogs helping children by offering some non judgmental humane interaction. All want to know how to set up a program like Reading with Rover in their community. Amazing isn’t it! So are we changing the world? I think we are, one tail at a time.