Dusty Gives Children the Best Gift of All—A Chance to Read to Him

By Yvonne Marcotte
Yvonne Marcotte
Yvonne Marcotte
December 23, 2015 Updated: December 24, 2015

FLORIDA—For three young readers on Dec. 19, Dusty brought them the best present of all this holiday season. He allowed the children to read to him. Dusty, of course, is a well-mannered Shetland Sheepdog and a certified R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dog).

For an hour on one Saturday morning each month Dusty and his owner Barbara Babikian visit the Florida Public Library to read with any child who signs up. Each reading session is 15 minutes. Children may bring their own books or choose one from library shelves that are filled almost to the ceiling of the Leona Harter Children’s Room.

“READ dogs help inspire confidence in reading by ‘listening’ to a child read one-on-one,” according to the READ flyer. Dusty does much more.

Babikian said children come to a session for different reasons. Daniel, 5, brought his own book. When he approached the reading alcove, Dusty, tail wagging, approached Daniel and waited to be acknowledged by the child.

Daniel tried to stroke Dusty’s head. Babikian advised Daniel not to pet Dusty from above, but to hunker down. Dusty greeted the boy and all was well. Daniel read slowly. Babikian assisted with encouragement and pronunciation help as needed. All the while, Dusty sat attentively close by the young reader.

More Than Reading

Babikian said Dusty helps children, not only with reading skills, but with socialization and being around pets. She has taken Dusty to Golden Hill Elementary School in Florida for reading sessions with several students and remembered Juliana, 7, who was next on the schedule to read. A little shy, she read very well during her time with Dusty and smiled often. She finished two books and got lots of positive reinforcement from Dusty’s owner.

A child at Golden Hill showed great improvement in socialization with help from Babikian’s former READ dog, Kaila. The girl had no friends because “she was very, very shy.” During their reading sessions Babikian would tell the girl that Kaila could not hear her, and she had to read louder. “I got her to speak through the dog.”

Babikian had the girl take Kaila through the school. “By me allowing the little girl to hold on to a second leash attached to Kaila and walk through the hall to the library built confidence in her. The children were coming to see Kaila and it made the child feel special.”

Luke, 8, was a good reader but might have come a little hesitantly. His mother said he was afraid of dogs. Dusty seemed to understand. Luke took his time getting physically close to Dusty.

When their reading session is over, Babikian offers each young reader a finger puppet of their choice and a bookmark with a photo of Dusty wearing reading glasses and the phrase “Reading is a ‘Pawsitive’ Experience!”

Meg Sgombick, library assistant for children’s services, said the library has been having READ dogs come by for about five years. She has seen how well Dusty interacts with young readers. “Dusty’s really good with reluctant readers.”

Dusty is featured in a children’s book, “Rex and the City.” Adults might appreciate the title’s double entendre from the television series.

Babikian said a R.E.A.D. dog has to be a registered Therapy Dog first. Next, the owner can order a manual, training, and registration packet from Intermountain Therapy Animals, read the manual and complete the registration packet, then send everything in to Intermountain Therapy Animals.

Babikian and Dusty participate in the Hudson Valley Visiting Pet Program. She said the organization offers R.E.A.D. testing twice a year. Anyone interested may call 845-234-0310.

“We need more teams,” Babikian said. “There is a long list of schools that need R.E.A.D. dogs.”

To contact this reporter, please email yvonne.marcotte@epochtimes.com.