Patient pooches help students learn to read

Even without a long-winded commencement speech, Brendan Ogg, 5, had a hard time sitting still through his Tuesday evening graduation ceremony. So did his favorite reading partner, a 6-year-old greyhound named Grace.

They were both born to run, it seems.

Brendan, who was born at 26 weeks, has always been hyperactive, says his dad, Michael. "He has a hard time focusing. You can't keep his attention."

Reading was a challenge for him, so when he started kindergarten this year, his teacher recommended him for a new program at the school called BARKS: Bonding, Animals Reading, Kids & Safety, in which volunteers bring their dogs like Grace to school for reading sessions with children who need extra help.

For a half-hour once a week, a child settles into a quiet spot and reads to a dog, under the premise of teaching the pooch to peruse a book. If the child stumbles over a word, the dog may cock its head, whimper, or do nothing.

"Then the owner kind of leans in and says, `You know what? I don't think Isis knows that word,'" says Jeani Gray, who co-founded the therapy-dog program that runs BARKS in a handful of local schools. Isis is one of her dogs; Titan is the other. They're also greyhounds.

"And you say, `Let's look that up, see what it means,' and teach her how to pronounce it." Gray said. "And suddenly it's about the dog, and not about the child."

No pressure. No embarrassment.

A dozen children in kindergarten through 5th grade were enrolled in the program this year at Lincoln, where Brendan and Grace took part in the BARKS graduation ceremony. Another dozen went through one at Douglas Elementary, and 16 at Lynn Road Elementary, both in Raleigh. All three programs are holding "graduation" ceremonies this week.

Gray says she has a waiting list of schools that would like to have BARKS, if only she had enough volunteers willing to commit to six months of training and to the weekly sessions with the kids.

"It's working," says Susan Spivey, principal of Douglas Elementary. "I just think it's that connection. Kids are not just visual. They're physical, and petting the dog and giving them a treat is very relaxing and enjoyable. And when they read to the dog, the dog is not going to correct them."

BARKS is one of several projects of Gray's group, Helping PAWS International, which started in the area and now has 115 dog-and-owner teams here and in Florida, Ohio, Texas and New Zealand.

Besides the reading program, PAWS also goes into nursing homes and hospitals and helps with physical, speech and occupational therapy. PAWS began with greyhounds -- mostly former racing dogs -- because they're especially gentle and, Gray says, "Just the right height for people in wheelchairs and hospital beds."

All breeds of dogs are now welcome, no matter their height. For their reading sessions, the dog and his child-tutor settles down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor, in a corner of the school media center or some other private place. The dogs are trained to pick a book out of a pile, bring it to the child, hold it flat in front of them and even turn the pages. All the child has to do is read.

Katy Taylor has been reading to G.G., a big retriever-poodle mix with long black hair and knowing eyes, every Thursday. The sessions became a highlight of the 9-year-old's week.

"I can see a huge difference," says Dawn Berlew, Katy's teacher. Katy's still not reading at grade level, but she's made great strides.

Brendan Ogg hasn't learned to read yet, but he has learned his alphabet and can recognize a few words. And for the first time in his life, his father says, he has the patience to sit all the way through a book.

Brendan brought a card to Tuesday's commencement to give to Grace's owner, Wendy Segreti of Cary, who also owns another BARKS dog named Stan. He folded a piece of construction paper and inside he had his teacher write, "Thank you for letting me love your dogs."

He signed his name himself.