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GOOD TURNS

Dogs Lend Their Ears to Young Readers' Tales

The Canine Literacy Project allows students to build confidence by practicing in front of a friendly, nonjudgmental audience of pooches.

August 31, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

It doesn't seem like Otis would be a very good listener. When he's not asleep, he's slobbering like a broken sprinkler.

But young Candise Hammad disagrees.

Once a week for a month and a half, the 8-year-old read to the jowly bulldog, one day a story about a bat named Stellaluna and another the time-honored "Green Eggs and Ham."

Candise's reading skills strengthened, and her passion for books grew.

"It makes me feel good when I read to him," she said. "He's cute and chubby, and he just lays there, so I know he's happy to listen to me."

Otis and Candise read together as part of the Canine Literacy Project, sponsored by the Orange County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and in its second year at a Huntington Beach child development center.

Each week, Otis and six doggy peers come to the center next to Oak View Elementary School and listen as the children read. The summer program ended recently, but organizers and volunteers are working with the school's principal to continue the program into fall and are trying to expand it to other county campuses.

On the last day of the summer session, children headed to shady patches behind the center, their special dogs in tow. The dogs' humans follow along to keep them on task and provide the occasional gentle correction to a child's pronunciation.

Dogs aren't judgmental, so they make perfect listeners for children whose reading needs some help. Those children tend to be shy at the beginning of the six weeks, then they blossom into strong readers like Candise, who cheerily recited the lyrical Dr. Seuss book to Otis with no hesitation or mistakes.

"Through Otis, these kids are learning to love reading," said his owner, Francine Simpson of Capistrano Beach. "Once the love is there, it's a lot easier to make the skills catch up."

Across the small yard, Philip panted quietly as 8-year-old Dania Barrera read him "Berenstein Bears Meet Santa Bear," which she said was pretty easy except for some big words like "practically." The title is an odd choice for August, perhaps, but as Dania explained, the Costa Mesa dog hadn't heard it yet.

Like the other children, Dania worked to hold her dog's interest, showing him pictures and injecting expression into her young voice. A soft white bichon frise with drowsy black eyes, Philip enjoyed the attention, his ears perking up as he lolled on owner Vera Viana-Asper's lap.

"I get lots of practice reading to him," Dania said. "He listens better than anyone else I know."

This summer, the older children started bringing kindergartners at the center to sit with them during story time and absorb the reading lessons. Also, the pilot program was expanded to the Salk Child Development Center in Anaheim.

Some libraries around the country have reading programs that bring children together with dogs. But the Orange County program is unusual in that it targets child development centers, which serve mostly low-income children and English learners.

"Arguably, they need help with their reading skills more than children whose parents bring them to the library and have more time to spend with them," said Karen Oishi of Long Beach, who brought the idea for the program to the society's attention. Oishi brings her fawn-colored Lhasa apso mix, whose elongated body hints at a bit of dachshund in the gene pool, to read with the children each week.

The dogs also participate in the society's other projects that bring humans and animals together, such as hospital therapy and pet education workshops at schools. They must undergo a battery of tests to make sure they can handle the flood of attention they get from little children with grabbing hands, or be able to ignore a yummy-smelling fast-food wrapper placed under someone's wheelchair.

During one of the literacy sessions, there is hardly a bark to be heard and the dogs all get along.

The children seem to take a cue from their furry friends and behave even better than usual, said center director Amy Blandford.

The kids bond intensely with the dogs during the six weeks, making get-well cards if they get sick and thank-you notes for the final day of the program.

"Please don't forget us, Otis," pleads one. "I hope you remember us, Otis," reads another.

What a change from the first week, said Simpson, Otis' owner. Then, the kids scrambled to get away from the sad-eyed dog. One little girl cried. Most gravitated toward Philip, a tidy white dog with bows in his fur.

But six weeks later, the kids couldn't get enough of Otis, who will retire from working with people in the next couple of months after doing it for six years.

They clamored to watch him slip down a slide and giggled as Simpson's husband, Chuck, fed him a grape Popsicle.

"I like Otis because he's brown and white, and those are my favorite colors," said second-grader Jesus Lara, 7, who on the last day read Otis a story about bears called "A Book of Kisses."

"He's a baggy dog," first-grader Gadiel Jimenez, 7, added solemnly.

Otis is perhaps the most mellow in the group. Others, such as a lively golden retriever named Callie, frequently nuzzle their kids' books or wag their tails in the children's faces. And Otis? Well, the hot sun tends to tire him out, so he sleeps more often than not.

Unfazed, the kids read on.

"He doesn't sit there and stare at me the whole time, but I know he's listening," said Candise, who absentmindedly rubbed Otis' small ears as she read. "Dogs let you know if they get bored."

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