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Midvale • George, a basset hound, looked intently at the book's pages as if he were considering the plot.
He probably wasn't, but Santiago Villanueva was as he read each page aloud to the dog who rested his head in the 7 year old's lap.
"He was nice," said Santiago, a first-grader at Copperview Elementary in Midvale, after completing the story and petting the brown and white canine lounging lazily at his side.
The basset hound and another dog that visited Copperview on Wednesday are part of the Intermountain Therapy Animals Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, in which children practice their skills by reading to dogs. The dogs regularly visit 13 schools, 11 libraries and a number of health care facilities along the Wasatch Front and in northern Utah, said Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals and R.E.A.D.
Klotz said the dogs can give confidence to struggling readers, who otherwise might be nervous to read in front of others. She said she's heard children say they like reading to the dogs because if they make mistakes the dogs won't laugh.
"Fear can kind of destroy intelligence and make kids freeze," Klotz said. "When they read to the dogs, all that goes away."
Intermountain Therapy Animals first launched R.E.A.D. in 1999 and it has spread significantly since then. Now, hundreds of registered R.E.A.D. teams visit schools, libraries, before and after school programs, health care facilities and youth detention centers across the United States and Canada.
The dogs visited Copperview on Wednesday in anticipation of a visit from Utah first lady Jeanette Herbert, who recently donated to the R.E.A.D. program 680 children's picture books left over from the National Governors Association conference hosted in Salt Lake City earlier this year.
It was only the second time R.E.A.D. dogs had visited the school this year, but about two years ago, a dog named Sid dropped in at the school once a week as part of the program. Jan Smith, a Copperview reading specialist, said the dog worked with first-graders and proved "a huge help."
"It's unconditional acceptance and love," Smith said. "A dog is never going to tell you you've gotten a word wrong."
Principal Chanci Loran said the dogs helped motivate students who don't always have parents who can read with them at home, either because they don't speak English or are working multiple jobs to support their families. About half of Copperview's students are learning English, and about 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school because of their families' income levels, she said.
On Wednesday, students took turns sitting on blankets on the floor with the dogs, reading short books to them aloud, often earning praise from the dogs' handlers. All the students got a copy of one of the books donated by the First Lady: LaRue Across America: Postcards From the Vacation, fittingly enough, about a dog.
Most of the students were first-graders, but several were third-graders who read regularly with Sid two years ago. It's an experience they haven't forgotten, and a tradition at least one student has taken home.
"I have a dog. I read to her every night," said Baileigh Jordan, 8, one of the students who read with Sid at school. "She falls asleep."