Health & Fitness

Has Oakdale Library gone to the dogs? No, but these canines help kids with reading anxiety

Reading aloud is a rite of passage in elementary school. But for some kids it triggers anxiety just as severe as public speaking does for some adults.

Stanislaus County Library at Oakdale has a solution — practice reading to a supportive, non-judgmental audience.

The audience? Therapy dogs.

Three dogs from Paws4Friends were on the job on Tuesday. The library community room was set up with dog-themed coloring pages and books, and each dog was on cozy blanket to welcome young readers.

Sue Barnes, coordinator for the Greater Modesto Area Paws4Friends, part of the national Alliance of Therapy Dogs, brought Morgan, a 13-year-old Jack Russell terrier mix. The group comes to the Oakdale Branch every three months and they also go the Modesto location.

“She loves to come here because she loves the children,” said Barnes about her canine. Morgan was cuddling with 11-year-old Jack Eidson while Misty Cooper, his mother, was reading to both of them. Cooper said Jack is on the autism spectrum and loves the dogs. They’re calming for him.

Therapy dogs have one job — to share joy and comfort to those in need, according to the Alliance for Therapy Dogs. Volunteer handlers with their specially trained dogs visit hospitals, adult care centers, schools, nursing homes and any place where their unconditional love is needed. Being read to, is almost a “working day off” for the caring pups.

“It empowers the kids to come read to the dogs,” said Brent Lowe, “It helps with their self-esteem.” Lowe is a library assistant at the Oakdale Library and emphasized that the library likes to do activities that nurture kids’ love of reading.

Emma Rose, an 11-year-old Shih Tzu, also appeared to love reading. She seemed to follow along as Chloe Lara, 7, of Oakdale, was showing her pictures from the book she was reading. Margo Romero, Emma Rose’s owner, said the little dog comforted her when her sister died, so she knew Emma Rose would make a great therapy dog.

Reading aloud can trigger anxiety

“Laura is 12 and she has mild dyslexia,” said Alicia Robinson, “She gets self-conscious, but last time we came she liked reading to the dogs.” Robinson brought her three daughters to the event. Rebecca, 14, and Olivia, 9, both enjoy reading and were excited to see the dogs.

Laura was reluctant to read to Carson, a quiet, cream-colored Whippet dog, so her sisters read first. Erynn Lucas, Carson’s owner, described Whippets as calm, family-friendly dogs that make ideal therapy dogs. Carson never made a sound and gently snuggled with each reader.

“I come because, gee, how cute is this?,” said Lucas, pointing to Carson and the kids. “He watches them read and the kids love him.”

No data are available about the number of children with isolated reading anxiety. However, nearly 4.4 million, or 7% of all children ages 3 to 14, have been diagnosed with anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means one or two kids in a class of 20 may be troubled when called upon to read aloud.

For the affected students, reading aloud sounds their internal alarm for the “fight-or-flight” response, causing a surge of adrenaline. The child may get flushed, feel their heart pounding and their breathing quicken. That’s the appropriate response to physical danger, but it can shut down the brain for learning.

Children with dyslexia (difficulty discerning words and letters), other learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and speech impediments may particularly dread being called upon in front of others. Dyslexia experts say these children fear performing poorly and being embarrassed or being judged by their peers or teachers.

On social media, adults jokingly cite reading aloud as a child as a trigger for their anxiety. But, maybe it’s not a joke.

Reading difficulties can cause a child to dislike reading and negatively impact learning in other academic subjects. Inferior reading abilities can make a child prey for bullying.

Steps to help decrease reading anxiety

Literacy and child development experts recommend having children practice reading to “something” not someone. Since therapy dogs aren’t always available, a family pet is a perfect substitute.

Even reading to parents or siblings can feel like too much pressure, so stuffed animals, dolls and superhero toys make great, tolerant audiences.

Speech therapists recommend to not interrupt a child reading aloud. Allow him or her to finish the passage before gently making corrections.

Teachers are encouraged to talk to children about their comfort for reading aloud before calling on them in class. If reading aloud is necessary, assign the passage ahead of time to allow children time to practice.

Find books on topics that interest the child and don’t count out graphic novels or comic books — that’s still reading.

“We don’t have a dog, maybe I better get one,” said Alicia Robinson, watching how happy her three girls were while reading to the furry friends.

This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.