Between 1997 and 2006, Long Beach resident Josie Gavieres raised six puppies to work with Guide Dogs for the Blind. The last dog she raised, Groucho, had an especially sweet temperament, but didn’t qualify for the program. Gavieres decided to take advantage of his gentle disposition in a different way.
“I had always wanted to be a first-grade teacher because I think reading is so important,” Gavieres says, “so I decided to help kids read through Groucho.” She pounded the pavement until she found a school in Long Beach willing to have its kids read to a dog. She brought Groucho to the school and let the students practice reading to a calm and sweet listener who wouldn’t judge their progress.
Soon, two more handlers wanted to join her with their dogs, and in 2007 Gavieres formally founded BARK: Beach Animals Reading with Kids. The organization now works with 150 volunteer handler-dog teams in L.A. and Orange counties.
BARK dogs visit more than 40 local libraries every month, and go to dozens of elementary schools each week to give children a non-judgmental, pressure-free environment to practice the crucial skills of reading and speaking. Sessions usually last 15 minutes per dog, and children can read to as many dogs as they want.
Children who are reluctant or shy readers, or who have learning issues, are told that their reading helps settle the dogs down. This gives the child motivation to continue reading even when they struggle. “There is no pressure or anxiety to read well, and the dogs do not laugh or judge the readers if they make a mistake. In fact, we often need to explain new words to the dogs!” Gavieres says. The animals provide attention and affection, which is sometimes all a young reader needs.
BARK dogs can go anywhere there’s a need for a friendly and stress-free companion. They’ve visited hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and even colleges students dealing with the stress of finals.
In recognition of the efforts of its dedicated teams of volunteers and dogs, this summer BARK received a grant of $20,000 from San Francisco-based pet food company Big Heart Pet Brands. The grant will help with outreach, training, materials and, most importantly, bringing loving dogs to children in need of a little help with their reading.