I first came across the Karma Dogs program at the Pikesville library several years ago. One of my sons had just rounded a corner in the children’s section and was ecstatic to find three dogs lounging on blankets next to the children’s videos. A school-aged boy was snuggling next to one of them and sounding out the words of an Easy Reader. The dog’s handler was sitting quietly nearby, and the boy seemed relaxed.
The sign nearby explained that we had stumbled on a program called Karma Dogs HEARTS (Help Encourage All Readers To Success). We had to rush home for dinner and couldn’t watch for longer, but I was intrigued. What was going on?
baltimore’s karma dogs: HEARTS program
Lisa Devage knows firsthand how Karma Dogs can turn a struggling student into a reader. In 2007, she was at her wit’s end. Her son Danny was in fourth grade and refused to even try to read outside of school. In desperation, Lisa offered Danny anything he wanted – video games, clothes, treats – if he would just give reading a try. But Danny refused.
That’s why when Lisa heard that Karma Dogs was coming to the library where she worked, she moved heaven and earth to make sure that Danny could be there. At first, Danny was skeptical. With time, though, he threw himself into reading with Dirk and the other dogs. The rest was history. Danny continued to attend Karma Dogs for seven years, until his junior year of high school, and Lisa credits the program with his success.
Kelly Gould, president and founder of Karma Dogs, says that most of the nonprofit’s canine “workers” are rescue dogs. “These dogs were given a second chance,” she says. “We’re helping to pay that good deed forward by helping kids who need a second chance as well.”
Although Karma Dogs have other duties outside of the HEARTS program – teaching life skills, working with autistic kids, helping children with special needs, and teaching children about dog safety – children like Danny benefit from just having a dog next to them while they read.
why it works
The concept might seem like a stretch to some, but Gould says that they have seen kids make huge strides in reading and self esteem after taking part in their program. “Our goal is not to make sure kids read out loud properly,” she explains. “We want them to enjoy reading.”
“Sometimes when parents are working with kids, the parents can become frustrated. Their breathing changes, their body language changes, and kids sense that. Karma dogs, on the other hand, have no idea whether the child is reading correctly; they just love the attention that the child is giving them. The child gets a sense that the dog enjoys what she’s doing, and that creates synergy between the dog and the child.”
And that’s the clincher – Karma dogs can help a struggling reader feel safe and relaxed. Many children who find reading challenging may feel stressed and anxious when they read to an adult. Reading to a loyal, non-judgmental dog can make all the difference for these kids, helping them relax enough to succeed.
Even if a child is having difficulty with a word, the handler can use the presence of the dog as a stress-free way to help the child figure it out. For example, if a child is reading to a therapy dog named Puddy and is struggling with the word “immediate,” the handler can say, “Puddy isn’t sure that’s how you say that word. Let’s ask Puddy what he thinks. Puddy, take a look at that word.” Puddy has been trained to touch his nose to the book when he hears these instructions. “That’s strange,” the handler might say. “Puddy thinks that the word is ‘ih-mee-dee-ayt.’ That’s not a real word! Can you figure out what it really says?” In this sensitive way, the child would realize the true pronunciation of the word and then “teach it to Puddy.”
“It’s some sort of Santa Claus effect,” says Gould. “Kids somehow forget dogs don’t talk. Sometimes it’s easier for kids to believe that a special dog in a special vest can do things that an ordinary dog can’t.”
So whether you have a young child who is just learning to read or an older child who is struggling, call your local library and ask them for information about their next HEARTS event. The dogs visit libraries throughout Baltimore and Harford County once a quarter.
Images courtesy of the Karma Dogs website.