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Furry Four-Legged Audience: Dogs Help Young Arizona Readers Grow

Verena was a VIP, very important pup, at Frances Brandon-Pickett Elementary in Queen Creek Monday. The big yellow dog sat in a circle of a dozen kindergarteners.

“She is here to listen to all of you read to her,” her handler Michelle Brown told the group.

Verena sighed and lay down as the kids took turns reading aloud from picture books.

Kindergartner Christian Tatiano cracked open his book.

“I don’t know the first word,”Tatiano said pointing toward the page.

“What are these?” Brown coached him, pointing toward the illustration.

“Goldfish are orange,” Tatiano said, finishing the sentence on his own.

He grinned and reached out to pet Verena’s soft fur.

“The dogs are so non-judgmental, the kids don’t feel any pressure,” said kindergarten teacher Helen Litle.

She brought the Paws 2 Read program to the school about five years ago after reading about it online.

Paws 2 Readis a Valley-based nonprofit organization that brings dogs (and sometimes parrots and pigs) to Arizona libraries and schools to read with kids.

“So what if you make a mistake?” Litle encouraged the kids.  “That’s what’s nice about the dogs. They don’t care. They’re going to just love you anyway because you’re sitting there petting their nose or rubbing their tail.”

Research has shown kids who regularly read to dogs are more excited to read and have more confidence.

A study published this year in the Early Childhood Education Journal found kindergarten and first grade students who read to dogs had higher reading scores than those who didn’t in the second year of the program. The same was true for kids who were learning English as a second language.

Tufts University researchers assessed kids after six weeks of reading to dogs and while there were no noticeable increases in their reading skills, the students were more excited about reading.

“One of the most important aspects of facilitating reading skill development is motivating a child to engage in reading,” said author Lisa Freeman in a press release.

Put more simply:

“It was fun!” said kindergartener Tatum Arbizo. The day was especially exciting because she doesn’t have a dog at home. Tatum said this even though she didn’t quite know every word on the page.  

“So I just made up my own words," Arbizo said.

Verena the dog didn’t seem to mind the changes.

Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.