Like humans, dogs can wear many hats. They can be our best buddy: comforting, entertaining, companionable, affectionate, protective; they can also be trained to provide guidance, assistance or therapy.
Here in north suburban Chicago, K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore (K9RBNS) offers a unique twist—dogs (and their humans) are helping children improve their reading skills and boost their confidence in academic settings; in fact, they’ve proved to be quite successful in doing so.
Founded in 2007 by Carole Yuster, who wanted to make a difference in her community, K9RBNS is a non-profit, volunteer, animal-assisted children’s literacy program that serves the North Shore of Chicago. Their goal is simple, yet profoundly important: motivating kids to read.
Their K-9 Reading Teams consists of therapy dogs and their owners, who include certified teachers, reading specialists, social workers, business professionals and stay-at-home-moms (who don’t stay at home). Currently, close to 30 such teams make up this program. Actually, the dogs need some education, themselves, before they can go to school to work with children. Both the dogs and their handlers take part in an interactive multi-media training program designed to teach a special set of skills (the program is based on the principles of Reading Education Assistance Dogs and is tailored to this area’s demographics). At that point, the dog becomes eligible to be tested and registered by a Chicago area Therapy Dog tester/observer.
Numerous scientific and psychological studies have documented the positive effects that dogs have on people—something already evident to dog-lovers and owners. A child reading to the K-9 Reading Buddy feels calmer and more relaxed; the child subconsciously tries harder when the reward is cuddling and bonding with the dog (as well as some really cute stickers!).
Carole explains the partnership:
What makes this program different from others, is that the dog is used as a projection tool. For instance, if it seems the child may not understand the meaning of a word, the handler will say something like, “Minnie doesn’t know what that word means. Maybe you can look the word up in the dictionary and read her the definition.” Now the focus is off the child and on the dog, creating a safe, non-judgmental environment.
K-9 Reading Buddies have primarily focused their efforts on working with struggling readers in grades 1 though 5 in schools across the North Shore. The children receiving these services have been identified by their teacher and the school’s reading specialist as needing more support and are currently not receiving any other reading intervention in the school. Naturally, parents are apprised of this opportunity and need to give their permission first. The Reading Teams go to schools who have invited them and who have the resources to accommodate these furry reading partners.
Talking about fur, Carole is very sensitive to the issue of allergies and takes several measures to avoid exposing anyone who is allergic to the dogs.
The student works with the K-9 Reading Buddy for a minimum of 20 sessions during the school year; Through both quantitative and qualitative assessments in the school, a well-rounded picture of the results emerges. To date, the program is succeeding in its mission, expanding its reach and the demand for more Reading Buddies is growing.
The Teams have also been matched with children in community libraries, pre-schools and after-school programs. This past year, a pilot program for 6th graders was launched in Elm Place Middle School in Highland Park, using newly-retired 6th grade teachers from a neighboring suburb. The volunteers collaborated with the school’s principal and reading specialist to adopt age-appropriate techniques. In addition, Carole has shared her hard-won knowledge of what is involved in running a not-for-profit organization through giving presentations at other Highland Park schools.
If you think that you and your family pet would enjoy being part of a Reading Team, be sure to contact Carole. They welcome volunteers without dogs, too; for instance, you could help manage library programs or write grants. There are even youth volunteers (12+), some who have aged out of the program and still want to be involved and help other children.
Grants from healthcare foundations provide most of K-9’s funding. Another source is a fun custom calendar filled with pictures of children and dogs from the North Shore. Right now they are giving away their 2013 calendar at various meet and greet events around town. The 2014 one will be available for sale ($10.00) in November and December at future events.
As it happens, Highland Park is featuring their Big Dog Show this summer throughout the downtown area; this is a one-of-a-kind traveling art exhibit of twenty-two 8’x10′ steel sculpture dogs created by the award-winning artist, Dale Rogers (coincidentally, I own one of his steel monkeys). Dog-related events have been planned this summer in conjunction with this show, some of which involve K9BNS.
If you watched the 4th of July parade in Highland Park, you probably caught sight of Reading Buddies Mickey and Minnie riding in a red Fiat convertible down Central surrounded by K-9 Reading Buddy teams and families passing out bookmarks. Check out this video recreating that moment.