My father had a team of huskies when I was small. They were working dogs, trained to pull freight on a sled, and it was conventional wisdom that to make pets of these animals would spoil them as sled dogs. As a child who saw little distinction between animals and people, I was initially delighted to have eight new dogs in the family and then horrified that I couldn’t make friends with them.
It was a safety issue as well as a pragmatic one. Children in rural Alaska were frequently savaged when they came too close to chained huskies, and I was forbidden to go anywhere near the doghouses that our dog team was chained to. My father would give them food and water twice a day, but during the summer, when there was no snow for sledding, the dogs ate, slept, and watched our household from the shelter of their own cramped little houses.
Their summer lives were boring beyond extreme, I decided, and so I would go, book in hand, sit on an empty doghouse that was a safe distance away, and I would read to them. I was careful to choose books that would interest them, like Call of the Wild or White Fang, and thye would come out of their houses and sit, watching me, heads cocked to one side, clearly interested. Sometimes they would make little noises when I finished our storytime, that would persuade me to stay for another chapter.
I thought of that when I found out about R.E.A.D., an organization that pairs children with therapy dogs, providing the children with an audience that is receptive and nonjudgemental, while improving their own reading skills and confidence. This is an especially effective way of working with children who are emotionally disturbed, since friendly dogs exert a calming and nurturing influence that may not be found in the child’s daily life.
This is a splendid program, and one that could well be expanded. Why not children reading aloud to children? All over the world? Let’s give this a little thought and talk about it again next week…