ROUND ROCK—The "dog days of summer" has taken on a new meaning for children at Texas Baptist Children's Home, thanks to a new partnership with the Austin Dog Alliance.
Once a week, the children gather to read to some new four-legged friends, each of whom provides a pair of attentive but nonjudgmental ears—and maybe a little tail-wagging encouragement.
Joyce Fiaccone, a TBCH campus life house mother, stumbled across the Austin Dog Alliance website while searching for field trip options for the kids in her cottage.
Previously involved with equine therapy, she has witnessed firsthand the positive effect animals can have on children.
"I wasn't at all surprised that a program like this existed," she said. "I know the value of kids working with pets, so I was very enthusiastic. Animals are so intuitive to children. They seem to key into what the kids are feeling."
Many of the children who live on the children's home campus have known what it means to be displaced and alone, often coming from chaotic backgrounds. Sometimes they had to leave cherished pets behind, because animals are not allowed in the cottages.
"It's one of the things kids here miss the most," Fiaccone said. "So, any time we can get them involved with animals, it's a good thing. And when a puppy is involved, even reading becomes fun for them."
Dogs involved in the Bow Wow Reading Group are thoroughly screened and tested before interacting with children. Their handlers receive training through the Intermountain Therapy Reading Education Assistance Dogs program.
"Studies have shown that children participating in these programs show an improvement in their behavior, a marked increased interest in reading and improved academics," said Nicole Brake, pet therapy volunteer coordinator. "It's pretty impressive."
The purpose behind the Austin Dog Alliance Bow Wow Reading Dogs program is to encourage an interest in reading. With TBCH children, however, the goal varies slightly.
"We could tell the children at TBCH were already strong readers and very well taken care of," Brake said. "The main purpose for our dogs to visit was to allow them the opportunity to interact with animals while still providing an opportunity to improve academically."
The first 15 minutes of the Bow Wow Reading group visit is spent playing. Children are encouraged to pet and visit with their new furry friends. Then, it's time to get to work. For the remainder of the visit, pups sit, heads cocked and ears perked, as children read their favorite stories.
But, why does this type of therapy work? According to Brake, it comes down to a simple connection.
"Dogs are nonjudgmental," she said. "Because they are relaxed, it encourages the child to relax, and they can feel more confident."
Bow Wow Reading Dogs are handpicked according to their personality, Brake said.
They must be at least one year old, calm, tolerant of tugging and handling, and have solid obedience skills.
So far, eight TBCH children are participating in the Bow Wow Reading group, with expectation of an increased enrollment. Austin Dog Alliance has already spoken with TBCH about continuing the program on campus during the school year.
"These children don't get to be around dogs much," Brake said. "This program encourages compassion toward animals and we want to continue to foster that and also inspire them to read."
Fiaccone seconds that sentiment, noting that sometimes all you need is a listening ear undistracted by outside forces.
"Any program that encourages our children to love reading is very exciting to me as a house parent and avid reader," she said. "I know the worlds of opportunity and entertainment that come from being able to read well, and I want to cry every time I hear a child say that they hate to read.
"No child that reads well ever hates to read. I also am mindful that one bonus of this type of program is that each child receives individual, nonjudgmental attention from a four-footed friend and their two-footed partner."
TBCH is a ministry of Children At Heart Ministries. For more about the Campus Life Program, visit www.tbch.org.