R.E.A.D. program began in 1993
by Samantha White
A couple of competent canines are now available by appointment at the Harney County Library (located at 80 W. D St. in Burns) the first and third Saturdays of the month.
The local library launched its Waggin’ Tales program Saturday, Jan. 4, to give children the opportunity to read aloud to the attentive, non-judgmental ears of furry friends, Tova and Nasika.
These disciplined dogs are not your run-of-the-mill “Rovers.” They are both therapy dogs who have also been registered through the Reading Education Assistance Dogs ® (R.E.A.D.) program.
According to its brochure, R.E.A.D. was launched in 1999 by Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA). Founded in 1993, ITA is a Utah-based, nonprofit organization that was created to “enhance quality of life through the human-animal bond.”
The brochure states that animals are ideal reading partners because they help increase relaxation and lower blood pressure; listen attentively; don’t judge, laugh or criticize; allow children to proceed at their own pace; and are less intimidating than peers.
The brochure also states that, “When a R.E.A.D. dog is listening, the environment is transformed, a child’s dread is replaced by eager anticipation, and learning occurs.”
R.E.A.D. uses registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament. They volunteer with their owner/handlers as a team.
Tova and Nasika are teamed up with Claire Larson, assistant librarian at the Harney County Library, who is their registered handler.
Larson explained that, in addition to developing excellent obedience and behavioral skills, R.E.A.D. dogs need to be highly interactive. For example, they are taught to look at the books and put their paws on the pages. Some dogs are even taught to sneeze as a cue to encourage children to look difficult words up in the dictionary.
“R.E.A.D. wants a higher level of interaction,” Larson said, adding that dogs are taught cues to benefit struggling readers.
The pooches are clicker trained, which is a method of positive-reinforcement training that uses a clicking sound to inform animals when they complete a task correctly.
Larson said her dogs learned to associate the sound with rewards, such as food, a toy or a ride in the car. She added that clicker training changes dogs from “reactive” to “active and engaging,” as they become eager to repeat behaviors in order to obtain incentives. Larson added that, once dogs master simple tasks, several trained behaviors can be chained together to teach increasingly complex skills.
“They have to do four or five things in sequence to earn a click,” Larson explained. Adding, “It’s pretty amazing what they can be taught to do.”
But, much like people, dogs have unique personalities and character flaws that can interfere with the training process.
For example, Tova is shy, and she tends to get overwhelmed in large crowds. On the contrary, Nasika might be a little too outgoing.
Larson described Nasika as a “wild child,” adding that she “gets goofy” and likes to dance and chase her tail. Nasika also needs to learn how to be quiet in the library.
“She has a comment for everything,” Larson said, adding that she likes to “howl and talk.”
But Larson — who has been adopting rescue dogs and horses for several years; volunteered locally as a 4-H dog-club leader; worked at a greyhound track; raced whippets; and run her own dogsled team — will tell you that training animals is a constant, ongoing process.
Larson, who has been working with her dogs on obedience for quite some time, received help from youth at Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility. For example, the youth helped “socialize” Tova, teaching her how to interact with young people. They also taught her to wave and shake hands. River, another one of Larson’s dogs, has also been moonlighting at the facility. And, because the youth and dogs have enjoyed the experience, Larson decided to continue and expand the facility’s pooch program.
At the library, Waggin’ Tales will continue semimonthly until after April, and restart in October. There is still time to schedule an appointment with a proficient pup.
For more information about Waggin’ Tales, or to book a 15 to 20-minute reading session with Nasika or Tova, contact the library at 541-573-6670.