PERKASIE, Pa. — Once a week, second-grader Brian Grab meets with Buster to work on his reading. Buster doesn't concentrate on the words very much, but just by being there, he helps Brian improve.
Buster is a dog, part golden retriever and all ears. He helps Brian learn to read in a program that pairs licensed "therapy dogs" with children at Deibler Elementary School and libraries in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia.
Programs like this are helping children nationwide read with more confidence.
Reading Education Assistance Dogs, a program that began in Utah, gives children a chance to read to a nonthreatening partner. Children can use the experience to boost their confidence without the scrutiny of an authority figure such as a teacher or parent.
Joyce Papciak coordinates Paws With Patience, the group that takes the dogs to Deibler. She says the freedom to make mistakes is important to children just learning to read.
"For parents and teachers, you have to do it right," she said. "You can just be comfortable and have fun with the dogs."
Carol Hurlbrink, the school's reading specialist, believes that the dogs help. "The children read without hesitancy," she said. "They're very motivated to read."
Hurlbrink says Brian has used the time with Buster to work on his enunciation, while another student has been motivated to learn his "sight words" -- words that teachers want him to recognize instantly -- because he looks forward to working with the dogs.
Barbara Kapinus, senior policy analyst and program consultant for the National Education Assn., says the program can benefit all elementary school children. Reading fluency, she says, is the key to success in all subjects.
"Some kids are held back because they can't read the textbooks in science and social studies," she said.
Kapinus cautions that a reading program featuring dogs cannot replace the support and help that come from reading with another person, but she says the program has merits.
"It's especially good for students who are shy and not very good readers because they're in a situation where no one will criticize," Kapinus said.
The program began in November 1999 at a Salt Lake City library. Intermountain Therapy Animals, an organization that had been taking animals into nursing homes and hospitals to meet with patients, took "reading dogs" to a public library for a four-week program. The library staff was skeptical, but the dogs were an instant hit.
A few months later, a pilot reading program with dogs was under way at Bennoin Elementary in Salt Lake City, and results began to appear quickly.
"Some students raised their reading level as many as four grades" over an academic year, said Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals. "They're having such a good time, they forget about being afraid of the things they can't do."
Her group now runs programs in 17 elementary schools in Utah, Idaho, Montana and Nevada.
She says she has received inquiries from more than 40 states and from such countries as Japan and Israel.
In Pennsylvania, Paws With Patience has taken dogs into hospitals and nursing homes for more than 15 years, but only recently began the reading program in schools.
The dogs visit Deibler once a month, although Brian and another student, Sean O'Brien, meet with Buster and his handler, Joyce Snead, once a week.
Children begin their turns with a dog by "introducing themselves," offering the back of a hand for the dog to sniff.
The child then sits down beside the dog, usually holding the book in one hand and petting the dog with the other. The dog listens quietly, often dozing on the knee of the child.
Some of the children prefer to lean on the larger dogs. A St. Bernard that visits the school is a favorite despite his intimidating size because three children can lounge against the dog with plenty of elbow room to turn pages.
If a child does not recognize a word while reading, the dog's handler may offer help, doing so quickly and without asking the child to struggle with the unknown word.
The handler's role is important, although intentionally unobtrusive. Snead, for instance, tells Sean that Buster needs some words explained to him, which helps Sean slow down and focus on his reading comprehension.
Many children lose their apprehension about reading when they believe that they're doing it to help their animal friend.
"You ask them to help the dog understand the story, rather than being put on the spot in the classroom," Klotz said.
Even though Buster doesn't read, Sean says his canine reading partner definitely has a favorite literary character: Clifford the dog.