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Dogs take a bite out of Houston's chronic reading problem: Animals remove the fear from learning

Dogs take a bite out of Houston's reading problem: Animals help kids

4 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013
Jasmine, a German shepherd, is part of a team of therapy dogs that help children to read. Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land
3 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013
The program is offered every Friday and Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science - Sugar Land. Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land
2 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013
Freeway, a beagle, has a calming effect on young students. Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land
1 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013
P.A.W.S. has served more than 500 children ages 2 to 7. Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land
4 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013
3 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013
2 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013
1 therapy dogs reading program at Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land August 2013

Meet Sabrina, Jasmine and Freeway, a trio of patient pals whose job is to help children become better readers. They know just how to relax and hangout while kids flip the pages of fun literature. They don't judge. They don't try to offer advice. They don't attempt to correct mistakes.

That's because they are therapy dogs.

The miniature poodle, German shepherd and beagle, respectively, belong to a team of adorable canines that partake in a twice-a-week program at the Houston Museum of Natural Science - Sugar Land. The Pets Are Worth Sharing Reading Program (P.A.W.S), held every Friday and Saturday at 10 a.m., pairs trained therapy dogs with children who are learning to read.

"The goal of P.A.W.S. is to take the pressure out of the process of learning to read," Adrienne Barker, director/chief development officer, tells CultureMap. "Reading to an adult can be very daunting for some children. The dogs provide a safe, non-threatening, nurturing environment in which kids can practice sounding words and reading in public."

 "The dogs provide a safe, non-threatening, nurturing environment in which kids can practice sounding words and reading in public."

The idea sprung from a recent visual art exhibition. In The Nature of Dogs, which was on view through February, photographer Mary Ludington captured images of 60 different breeds and their impact on human life. Complementary activities that included visits from service dogs inspired the now popular offering that has served more than 500 children ages 2 to 7. 

"We typically have five great dogs and three experienced handlers — they are just wonderful," Barker adds. "We have parents that bring their children week after week, some have even developed loving relationships with the dogs. One mother was in tears when she saw her child overcome her fear of reading after a few visits."

For those who are too young for books, the parent or dog handler read aloud. Barker says that she's witnessed toddlers picking up words from such an interchange.

Anyone who's ever cuddled next to a docile pooch is familiar with the calming effects of their unconditional love. These loyal pups are motivating little ones to develop a love for books in a city with less-than-stellar literary credentials.

According to the Houston Center for Literacy, one in five Houstonians are only functionally literate, Texas students score 48th in the nation in the writing portion of the SATs and 55 percent of students who enter a two-year college program aren't college ready. The National Center for Education Statistics reports a 24 percent illiteracy rate in Fort Bend County and 21 percent Harris County.

Admission to P.A.W.S is free with regular museum admission, which is $12 for adults and $9 for children, seniors and military personnel.