Going to the dogs has special meaning,
thanks to Reading with Rover program

This is the sign that greets visitors to the vacant store front in the Redmond Town Center, where Reading with Rover sessions are held twice monthly.

Photos courtesy Jerry and Lois Photography

By Ranny Green

On a cold, damp early December evening they headed up the stairs of the Redmond Town Center, which was brightly accented with holiday décor, with a twinkle in their eyes and pleading with their parents to walk faster.

Mostly 4-to-8-year-olds, their destination wasn’t Santa Claus’ lap. It was a vacant store site, home to a nourishing Reading with Rover program. Inside were 11 owners and their highly trained dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds, including mutts, stationed around the walls of the room on mats, blankets and large towels.

Alex Jajewski, left, and his brother, Brett, of Kirkland, get in some reading time with handler Brian Daly, of Lynnwood, and Silas, a Labrador retriever mix.

As each child entered, he or she eyed the scenario and picked a station to begin reading to the welcoming dog sitting or lying alongside its owner. Youngsters were given five to 10 minutes per stop, then moved on to another and another for an hour.  After each stop, the owner handed the child a bookmark with a photo of the dog, its name and a sentence detailing its background.  On the flip side, is data about the program, ways of supporting it along with the web site and mailing addresses.

Co-founder of the 20-year-old literacy program Becky Bishop, of Redmond, says, “Thanks to social media, improved communication and passionate volunteers, we have managed to continually grow. We started with three teams (owner and dog) and now have 110. Our dogs are kind of like the Eagle Scouts of therapy dogs. The handlers come from all backgrounds, including education.”

No stress here, as Penny Gabriel, of Kirkland, reads to a relaxed Reese, a Bernese mountain dog owned by Julie Hembree, of Sammamish.

Prior to final certification, each team must pass a thorough regimen that includes a Washington State Patrol background check, shadow visits without the dog  to sessions at a library, book store or school and  volunteering at events with mentors.

Brian Daly, a Kirkland second-grade teacher and longtime Rover handler, says, “Rover serves as a ‘bridge’ between my professional and private lives. Many of my students, struggling and sound readers alike, faithfully attend Rover nights at the Redmond Town Center. This allows me to interact with them in a less formal way than I can at school, sometimes almost in a mentoring capacity, which translates nicely into better classroom relationships.

“When the parents of my students see me functioning in my volunteer capacity, it demonstrates to them that I don’t just talk the pro-literacy talk, but that I put my money where my mouth is.”

As handler Sherry Lebed Davis, of Lynnwood, and 5-year-old Simon, a bearded collie, listen, Kaelyn Billington, of Kirkland, enunciates a word.

While he doesn’t love that some of his students fight their parents, some tooth and nail, for a few meager minutes of reading, he appreciates that they happily attend Rover readings, sometimes foregoing other activities, then read without stress or strife for an hour or so. No bribing necessary. Just the promise of a furry cuddle or a friendly slurp in a relaxed, fun-filled environment.

Daly adds, “I love how the kids’ faces light up when they see their favorite Rover dog arrive at my school (Rose Hill Elementary in the Lake Washington School District) Tuesday mornings and on Rover nights at the Redmond Town Center. I also love the way the kids collect the Rover bookmarks like baseball cards, sometimes proudly displaying them on the top of their desk or on the front of their take-home folders at school.”

Daly’s wife Cathy, a first-grade teacher for 26 years and Rover handler, adds, “Aside from good instruction, time spent practicing  new skills seems to be the leading indicator of how a child’s beginning reading experiences will be. Families are busy these days and finding time to practice a new skill can be tricky. Reading with Rover provides this opportunity for children to practice in a way that is fun, motivating and unique. My students cannot wait for Rover nights and cheer when they see it on our monthly calendars.”

Parents tell her that Rover nights are the highlight of their child’s week. “This seems especially true of boys,” she adds, “and I’ve been able to hook several of my first-graders into the program.”

After finishing a reading, each child receives a bookmark with a photo of the dog, its breed name and information about the program on the flip side.

The Rover dogs have been an integral part of a summer reading program at Bell Elementary School in Kirkland, where Cathy Daly teaches, for four years. The students who attend these sessions are below-standard kindergarten and first-graders who have been identified by their teachers as needing extra reading help.

She adds, “Kids practice diligently, knowing that the dogs are coming at the end of the week and that they will get to read their stories to them. Last summer we had a boy who was afraid of dogs and only wanted to watch from a distance. He started out looking through the glass as others read to them. Pretty soon he was at the door and before we knew it, he was sitting with a dog reading his story. He spent the next half-hour moving from dog-to-dog, reading. Two breakthroughs were made that day – he was able to practice a very difficult skill while experiencing the power of the Rover dogs. By day’s end, he was hugging Jett (a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever) and giving him a good-bye kiss.”

With other options like video games, TV, sports and music, the challenge of interesting a child in reading is formidable for most parents today. Jennifer Wardwell, of Kirkland, has fought that battle with her first-grader, Gage Neuenschwander. After moving from half-day kindergarten to all-day first grade, Gage gradually warmed up to the new environment in all aspects but reading.

“I heard about Reading with Rover and wanted to see if that might encourage him,” she says. “He resisted, but I stood my ground and listened to him tell me all the reasons why he can’t go on the drive to the Redmond Town Center. As we got out of the car and walked up to the front door, I saw him give in, realizing there was no escape. I knew he was not pleased but I thought maybe if he just gave it a try he might like it. And to my shock, he did not like it, he loved it!”

Christina Nis, 7, of Redmond, gets an attentive nudge from Olive, an English pointer owned by Gina Kimble, of Duvall. (Photo - Jerry and Lois Photography)

All it took, she recalls, was reading to that first dog and he was hooked. A few moments later, Wardwell found herself standing by the front door chatting with other parents as an excited Gage made the rounds from one dog to another. After thanking the volunteers, she remembered her son coming up to her and asking, “Can we go again?” And now Reading with Rover nights are a regular fixture on her monthly calendar.

“Rover has given Gage the confidence to believe in himself that he can do new things and succeed. His reading ability has soared and with that his writing skills have improved, too. For Gage, this program has tapped into something very special,” Wardwell smiles.

Owner/handler Marydell  Rarick, of Kirkland, says the program has taught her “to think of my dog first, not me. I want the kids to feel comfortable with him, so I need Cole (a Labrador retriever) to feel comfortable, too. My favorite moments are when Cole will lay his head on the reader’s lap, and the child will begin to pet him. Cole will just stretch out and relax and the child feels he can relax and read without thinking about making a mistake.”

Reading with Rover is as contagious for owner-handlers as the youngsters. For instance, Gina Kimble, of Duvall, almost decided not to attend the early December event, after a tiring day at work. “Olive (her English pointer) so enjoys coming, and I knew this would be the last session for the month, so how could I pass it up,” she says.

Olive was her “silly self” that night, and met one big challenge head-on. Kimble explains, “We had a father and son sit with us, and Olive offered her usual hello kiss and settled in. The father had chosen a very difficult book for his son and expected him to read it. It was hard for me to remain silent because I could see the boy’s uneasiness. While he stammered and struggled through a page, his hand slowly reached over and began to stroke Olive repeatedly. It was his way of asking Olive to help him through a difficult time. Dogs and kids are similar in that neither judges others.” That night the two connected beautifully in a calm, non-threatening environment.

Some of the dogs, like 4-year-old Ruby, a golden retriever, owned by Patty Day, of Issaquah, are rehomes and trained by program founder Bishop.

Ruby has blossomed into what Day describes as “one of the best judges of character I have known.” This is reflected with adults and children alike. One of her most stirring RWR memories involved a boy who started the year pointing to pictures and telling Ruby what they were in a soft voice. He ended the year reading with a strong voice and brisk pace.  “As I was about to point this out to his mother, she turned and said to her son, ‘Remember when you could only tell Ruby what the pictures are?’ She then looked at me and added, ‘Look at him now!’ Need I say more?”

For Sherry Lebed Davis, of Lynnwood, the intuitive skills of Simon, her 5-year-old bearded collie, are key. “Simon seems to know the children that need him most and will put their head in their lap, his paw on their legs, kiss them or simply watch them as they read. He creates an instant comfort zone for them to read.”

Ollie, a Labradoodle, owned by Cindy Pigott, of Bellevue, manages to separate work from play without a hitch. “He is a true male dog – always looking for a bunny to chase, grass to roll over on or a lake to leap into,” says Pigott. “However, once I attach his special leather leash onto his collar, he knows that it’s time for school.”

“Reading with Rover,” Bishop smiles, “is one of those rare win-wins for all involved – the parents, child, volunteer and the dog.”

Protective and passionate best describes Bishop’s ties to this program she has nourished for two decades. “We take great care to make certain we have the right dogs and the right people in place,” she emphasizes, “with proper training.”

At a time when it is difficult to attract volunteers, Reading with Rover is thriving, which speaks volumes for its effectiveness in the community. “I knew this program had potential when we started it,” Bishop concludes, “but it has exceeded my expectations, thanks to the commitment of our incredible team.”