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Reading With Rover: A Legacy of Love and Literacy

For more than 17 years, Reading With Rover has inspired children to read while teaching them about empathy, compassion, and kindness.

Reading With Rover (RWR) started in 2001 in the Bothell Public Library with a librarian named Mei-Mei Wu. Reading With Rover became a corporation and granted non-profit status with the IRS in 2004. “Our initial purpose was improving children’s literacy through the use of registered therapy dogs in a non-judgmental environment, encouraging children to read aloud to the dogs,” explained Community Programs Facility Coordinator Leslie Williams. “The scope was to provide our services to the public library system, because of Mei-Mei. It grew to include bookstores and schools – and now, specialty events, community fairs, and summer camps such as Camp Sparkle.”

Reading With Rover’s elementary teams

Typically, a school or library has one or two reading events per month. “Each month we’re in nine King County Libraries, three Snohomish Libraries, and the Edmonds Library,” Leslie said. “We’re in the Kent, Lake Washington, and Northshore School Districts on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. In some schools, there are multiple dogs going to visit with the students and in other schools there’s only one dog team that goes to its local school down the road.”

RWR sticks to the Puget Sound area. They have been approached by corporate sponsors to take the program nationwide, but rejected that idea in favor of staying small.

“We want to be great at what we do,” Leslie said.

“The kids who attend our program are there because they want to be. If we get one kid, we’re succeeding. If we get 1,000 kids, we’re succeeding. That’s how we see it.

“RWR is an important program for children and for the dogs who participate. The effect of the dogs is something that cannot be achieved any other way,” Leslie said. “Kids who are shy, kids whose native language is not English, kids who are afraid of dogs, kids who are anti-social, kids with speech difficulties – all of them will read to a dog, but not to anyone else.”

So why is RWR so important to the dogs who participate in it?

A Reading With Rover team at SW Youth and Family Services in Burien

“Most dogs have loving families and live good lives in our society. But our RWR dogs have a purpose! They have a lasting legacy with numerous children who can now read because of their exposure to our dogs. Our dogs will be remembered by our children, some of whom have already grown into adults.”

Raven listens intently as 8-year-old Kyle Boyd reads to her. Photo by Marika Moffitt / Dirtie Dog Photography

Executive Director Dave Bishop’s most rewarding story is about a little boy named Luis. “He was in second grade, and he spoke very little English,” Dave recalled. “He was from a migrant, working family and had been taught from infancy that book knowledge isn’t important. But when Luis saw me, a large man, bringing my big chocolate Labrador, Moose, to classes week after week and sitting with him, listening to him read, Luis’s opinion changed. He became excited about coming to school – especially on Thursdays! Early on, while reading to Moose, he stumbled over words like ‘the.’ He said it like ‘tuh-hea’ and then looked at me with an inquisitive expression. I would give Luis an equivalent word in Spanish. By the end of the school year, Luis was reading at his class level and participating in all his other classes. Reading to Moose did that for Luis. I returned with Moose the following year and to my amazement, I was assigned to Luis again! I met Luis’s father at our open house. I spoke with him in Spanish and had a great conversation about Luis and his tremendous improvement. Afterward, he took my hand in both of his. He looked up at me and I could see tears. He thanked me for bringing my dog and helping Luis learn to read and speak English so well. I told Luis that when he graduated from high school, I wanted to be there and if Moose was still alive, I would bring him with me. Luis agreed.”

Dana the Great Dane with a toddler friend

Leslie was also happy to share a favorite story. “I was working with Mia, a girl in second grade in the Northshore School District,” she recalled. “ Mia was reading at an ‘E’ Level, which is halfway through Grade 1. We started meeting once per week for 30 minutes in the beginning of October. She’d read to Tiffy and get tired, then pick a different book off the Learning Center Library shelf and start off again. We’d sometimes try to read the book in a singsong voice to make it interesting. Tiffy made it fun to read, and never made a fuss when the young girl would take a long time to decode a new word. We did this until the Holiday break. In that time she’d advanced to Reading Level ‘L,’ which was at the top of her class. Mia was very happy and proud, her family was very happy, and the grandmother that I met up with in the local Quilting Store was ecstatic. Mia is now in college.”

“Our program allows both children and adults to see trained, calm, therapy dogs interact in a non-threatening way. This shows that we can have many dogs in a small space and there is no need for aggression from humans or canines,” Leslie said. “There are times when children cry from a fear of dogs. They can watch from outside the room, eventually come into the room, and a little later sit by a dog and actually read to it. We’ve seen this happen time and again. We have many people whose participation in the program is their first ever encounter with a dog. You can see it in their faces, you can see it in their hands as they carefully and cautiously reach out to one of our friendly dogs. Our dogs must hold themselves, no matter how much they want to advance and approach. The person (child or adult) must be allowed to approach at their own speed and comfort level. We find one encounter leads to two, then three, and soon they are regulars at our events.”

Reading With Rover has a strong following in schools, bookstores, and libraries. “We’re a non-profit that depends on contributions from the public,” Leslie explained. “Our services are 100% free. Nobody in our organization has ever been paid for their volunteer work with RWR. We’re 100% volunteer and everything has been held to that standard from day one. We have no desire to change it. We look for passion, not greed. We look for service, not fame. We are truly in this program to help as many people as we can.”

Reading With Rover at UW’s School of Law

In recent years, RWR has diversified. “We now go to events and locations where stress and catastrophe are present and where we know calm, well-trained therapy dogs can be of service,” Leslie said. “These events aren’t literacy-based, but we feel they’re important enough for our volunteers to attend, in addition to their literacy focused events. Shootings at colleges, the mud slide up in Oso, detention centers – these offer important opportunities and, if our volunteers can handle it, we encourage them to participate. Literacy remains our focus and our primary driving force behind the organization, but we aren’t against spreading our influence to a broader audience when the need arises.”

Reading With Rover seeks dogs who are friendly, calm, quiet (no barking or whining) and accept the touch and presence of strangers. “That’s about all it takes to be a great therapy dog,” Leslie said.

To become involved with Reading With Rover, you need to train, test, mentor, and participate. “Start with basic manners classes. Progress to Therapy Prep Classes when the dog is one year of age or older. Your dog will need to pass an evaluation, and finish training in the mentorship portion of our program, with a doggy mentor,” Leslie explained, “and you could also be a dogless lead who organizes events.”

To learn more about Reading With Rover, visit www.readingwithrover.org.