Therapy dogs help New York immigrant kids clear reading hurdles

Therapy dogs like Izzy are the heart, soul and wagging tail of a literacy program in schools and libraries.

Reading Education Assistance for Dogs. Picture: READ official Facebook page.

NEW YORK - Izzy rested his chin on the knee of third grader Aelane Vasquez at Public School 57 in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City on Monday and hung on every word she easily read aloud from a book that would have stumped her months ago.

Therapy dogs like Izzy, a gray Havanese, are the heart, soul and wagging tail of a literacy program in schools and libraries called Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) that encourages young readers.

"I love reading to Izzy because he listens to me and he doesn't make fun of me when I make a mistake," said Vasquez, 9, who read "Cam Jansen: The Mystery of the Circus Clown."

Immigrant children face the added challenge of mastering English as a second language, a hurdle for many at PS 57, where families like Vasquez's hail from countries like Mexico, Dominican Republic and Ecuador, said officials from Intermountain Therapy Animals, which founded READ in 1999.

"New language, new environment, familiar friends and family out of the picture, the list of painful challenges goes on and on for them," said ITA executive director Kathy Klotz.

Primarily geared toward students in kindergarten through third grade, READ serves 175 children in New York City schools alone, said Nancy George-Michalson, executive director of its affiliate New York Therapy Animals. READ is active in other US states and nine other countries.

A student who can't read at grade level by the end of third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school by age 19, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In the United States, an estimated 45 million adults are functionally illiterate, according to the Literacy Project Foundation.

At PS 57, third grade students were reading below grade level when they started working with Izzy in October, said teacher Bridget McElroy. By early May, nearly all of them had reached, or surpassed, their grade level.

New York's myriad immigrant cultures create additional challenges, said McElroy, noting that in many Latino countries dogs are often strays and not kept as pets.

"Students at first were a little nervous and fearful. Flash forward, now there is a level of enthusiasm that's really great about reading, also just an excitement to be with the dog. That's phenomenal," McElroy said.

Vasquez said she chooses books with Izzy in mind.

"It might get interesting for him too," Vasquez said.