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Volume 41 Issue 10 • July 14-20, 2011
now in our 41th season

Man's Best Friend, Child's Best Tutor

Do you remember what it was like to learn to read?  Many of us harbor glowing memories of the great satisfaction that accompanied a rewarding challenge.  If you’re in that category, it can be easy to forget that many others are stung by recollections of the shame that came with a great struggle to read.  Although understanding the written word is a decisively fulfilling rite of passage, it is certainly not an easy experience for every child.  The embarrassment of not reading on the same level as peers can be perpetually damaging to an affected child; some children, in despondence, simply give up. Nantucket summer resident Stephanie Cooper Greenberg believes that all kids deserve the chance to learn to read in a relaxed and non-judgmental environment.  That’s why she has partnered with the Nantucket Atheneum in order to provide that very thing for any and every Nantucket child who is struggling with reading. But her approach is more canine than conventional.
Greenberg greets me in her front yard with a bright grin and a beautiful Dalmatian named Mattilda, who is a key member of Greenberg’s reading education team.  Mattilda is incredibly sweet, and she loves to snuggle her head onto a welcoming lap.  But behind her lovable, brown spotted exterior, she is much more than just another pretty doggy face.  Mattilda is a Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.), which means that she is a certified therapy dog that has been professionally trained to be a good listener.  This summer, Mattilda will be available at the Atheneum twice a week for free reading sessions with kids ages 6-9. 

Mathilda

Greenberg says, “It’s really just as simple as it sounds.  The kids pick a book to read, and Mattilda sits there and listens.  She doesn’t judge or embarrass them.  I know it may sound strange, but it really works!”  Greenberg’s face lights up as she recalls the many fond memories from the past several years of the R.E.A.D. program on Nantucket.  “Something truly magical happens,” she says, emphasizing every word.  “The adults in the room melt away until it’s just the child and Mattilda.  The kids just want so much to please Mattilda that they let go of their reservations.  That paralyzing fear of reading in front of a class is gone.”

While R.E.A.D. may not suit every child, Mattilda’s kind eyes and attentive demeanor make for an ideal reading companion for many uncertain readers. Unlike some unfortunately misguided teachers or parents, Mattilda doesn’t bark at kids when they make mistakes.  She simply listens.  Indeed it may sound unusual, but various studies have measurably proven this method to be effective.  For example, in 2010, a controlled before-and-after study at University of California, Davis found increases of up to 30 percent in the reading levels of kids who worked through the R.E.A.D. program.
Individual reading sessions at the Atheneum are 15-20 minutes long and totally free.  All kids ages 6-9 are welcome, whether they are local to Nantucket or just visiting.  Readers may bring a favorite book from home or choose one from the wide selection available at the library.  Reservations are required and, fortunately, are very easy to make! Just visit the Atheneum’s website at www.nantucketatheneum.org. The sessions will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Atheneum Gallery every Wednesday and Thursday from now until August 24.

As a summer resident only, Greenberg regrets that she is unable to offer the program all year long. “It’d be wonderful if some year-round dog owners on Nantucket could step up and make this program available for kids during the winter months.”  One may think that obtaining certification is a difficult process, but it is very doable with the help an upstanding organization.  Mattilda is certified by the Delta Society, a non-profit devoted to improving human health through service and therapy animals.  Certification is an education process, and its successful completion is a requirement for an animal to be an official service animal.  Additionally, many pet owners find that therapy training doubles as an excellent tool for behavioral matters.  “Mattilda wasn’t always like this!” exclaims Greenberg.  “She actually had severe behavioral problems before being trained.  So even if your dog is rambunctious, the training is so, so beneficial and can turn a dog around.”  When I ask Greenberg which breeds tend to make the best therapy dogs, she gives me a surprising answer.  “Any and every breed!” is her confident reply.  “There is no such as thing as the wrong breed for a therapy dog. But obtaining that certification is absolutely crucial.”

If you’re wondering whether Mattilda enjoys the R.E.A.D. program as much as the kids do, then Greenberg has some insight for you.  “Our modern dogs don’t have jobs to do like rat or herd like they used to.  Especially for some breeds, like Border Collies, a lack of meaningful work can be very depressing.  So working with people and kids is a very rewarding role for Mattilda.”  But of course, like all work, being a therapy dog can get exhausting. “Mattilda definitely knows when she is working,” admits Greenberg. “When we are at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore [a children’s treatment facility where Greenberg and Mattilda frequently volunteer], there are just stimuli everywhere.  Everyone wants to pet her and interact with her. But since she’s wearing her little jacket [that designates her as a therapy dog], she knows it’s time to be calm and collected and stay on track.”  Though the sweet Dalmatian might flop down and sleep after a long day of work, Greenberg says, “Mattilda really loves being there for people, and she is very appreciated for it.”  But in the end, the main reason for R.E.A.D. is all about the children. Greenberg beams as she says, “We have seen remarkable changes in self-love in the kids. It’s palpable how proud they are of themselves, and it’s just so beautiful to literally watch a child’s self-esteem rise. It’s very humbling that we get to be a part of this.”

If you think your dog could potentially make a good therapy animal, then you can start by simply gathering some information.  To learn exactly what it means for your dog to be a certified therapy animal, a good place to begin is www.Deltasociety.org.  Think about whether this kind could be right for you and your dog. You don’t have to jump in with both paws right away, but Greenberg encourages you to be aware of this wonderful opportunity to contribute to the year-round Nantucket community or even to your community back home.

 

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