Literacy program using dogs touted in Carson City

Terry Cuyler uses dogged persistence and trained dogs to help young school age children learn to read or improve their reading skills.

Cuyler has two therapy dogs very much alive and one stuffed replica named Fugly she trots around — actually she carries it — to speeches as she spreads the gospel of READing Paws, an organization she got up and running in Nevada after being in a similar Florida program. Tuesday a Rotary Club luncheon audience met Fugly and heard Cuyler make her pitch at the Carson Nugget casino.

“It’s a program that I’ve become passionate about,” said Cuyler. She said the current focus is on helping children learn or improve reading skills during early elementary school years, but added during a question/answer period dog teams are available as well to help adults with literacy problems. The audience question may have stemmed from her assertion in the talk 42 million Americans can’t read and others read at no more than a fifth grade level.

Use of therapy dogs with a human handler helps children not only by encouraging them to read to the dog, but to participate more in group settings and follow the dog’s lead because each dog must be groomed well prior to any such sessions. Cuyler said one pupil came to school only in anticipation of reading to a dog and another took to brushing teeth after learning the dogs go through teeth-brushing and dander-proofing to be in the program.

She asked, rhetorically, if there is proof the program works. “Tons of it,” she said. She cited studies from the University of California-Davis that one group was helped 12 percent in reading by participation of dogs, another as much as 30 percent. ”And children in the control group? Nada,” she said. “These dogs make the kids feel great.”

Cuyler said dogs keep the children engaged, feeling good, and sometimes provide parents so much joy at their children’s progress their emotions brim over. “I’ve had parents come up to me in tears,” she said. “So it really had quite an impact on them.”

The program is run in affiliation with Reading Education Assistance Dogs, or R.E.A.D., and Cuyler said both dog and handler must go through extensive training. The dogs must be therapy dogs and handlers are trained in remaining in control but in the background as an unobtrusive part of reading sessions.

Cuyler’s pitch included a bid for funding to aid training or related needs such as books, as well as for welcoming schools or other facilities where kids and teams can meet. But, as much as anything, her pitch was for people and dogs to swell the number of teams involved with the Nevada chapter she founded after coming to the Silver State in 2012.

“Our dogs are very special,” she said, “and our people are very special.”

After the talk, Cuyler said she provides a team with her own two dogs, using them on an alternating basis, and has five other active teams. She also has five teams in the pipeline, she said, but keeps trolling to develop more.


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