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Posted: Wednesday, September 6, 2006 10:00 pm

Dogs hold jobs all over the world; from leading search-and-rescue teams to starring in television shows and even helping people to read.

At Lodi Middle School, educators have worked all summer to set up the "Doggone Reading Center," where students practice their reading skills by working with dogs.

While test scores or assessments may not prove the dogs' affect on reading skills, the real value is in getting children excited about learning, says Beverly Templeton, coordinator of the Animal Friends Connection's "Paws to Read" program. Templeton, a semi-retired psychiatric nurse with the San Joaquin Mental Health Services, is helping introduce reading therapy dogs to schools and libraries in the county.

Children who struggle with reading often find reading with dogs is easier than trying to read in a classroom full of other children.

"They're just a buddy for kids to read to," said Carole Burniss, the Lodi Middle counselor who wrote a grant proposal to use $2,000 of Lodi Unified School District's Medi-CAL funds on the reading center.

At a dedication ceremony on Wednesday, six dog-and-human teams welcomed Lodi Middle School students to its new reading lab.

The Paws to Read program got started last May when Lodi Middle School invited local organizations to teach students about volunteerism, said eighth grade counselor Cathy Manassero. Grant funds awarded at the end of last school year were used to purchase books, decorations, reading logs and prizes, and materials to revamp an old storage room into the "Doggone Reading Center."

The reading lab is furnished with canine-themed objects of all kinds. A barking welcome mat greets visitors. Posters of famous TV and movie dogs are tacked up on the walls. A couple of dog stuffed animals "sit" on rugs next to the chairs.

Londa Dowling is a therapy dog handler whose 11-year-old American Kennel Club champion show dog, Sky, has cuddled up to about 60 children at the Galt Library since June.

Students recommended by teachers and counselors will get to participate in 20-minute reading sessions. About six teams will make the rounds at Lodi Middle School. There's Beverly Templeton and Tovy, a standard poodle; Shirley Twing and Jammer, a fluffy chow; Londa Dowling and Sky, a Papillon; Cathy Haynie and Mickey, a Queensland heeler; Cynthia McLaughlin and Teddy, a golden retriever; and Patricia Sherman and Dion, a Dachshund.

"We want to motivate kids, develop a love of learning," said Burniss.

Lining the bookshelves are about 60 books, all about dogs. Dogs that have jobs. Dogs made famous in the movies. Novels about dogs. Dogs that had a part in history. Some of the titles: "Because of Winn-Dixie," "My Dog Skip," "White Fang," even "Clifford the Big Red Dog." They'll be getting stories about cats and other animals soon, said Burniss.

Angel Begley, an eighth grader at Lodi Middle School, pets Jammer, a nine-year-old Chow Chow and retired show dog, Wednesday morning at the school courtyard before a dedication ceremony of the new Doggone Reading Center. The center will provide reading support through therapy dogs like Jammer to build confidence in the students reading skills. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

The program is meant to help students who "who might be unmotivated and need something to get interested (in) and enjoy reading," said Patricia Sherman, president of Animal Friends Connection Humane Society.

Paws to Read organizers say they got the idea from a Salt Lake City nonprofit organization called Intermountain Therapy Animals. Its Reading Education Assistance Dogs, or READ, program was developed in 1999.

"As far back as the '70s there were people who thought this might be a good idea," said Paula Dalby, the organization's national READ team coordinator. It has since registered more than 1,100 teams in 46 states and three provinces in Canada.

Contact reporter Kendyce Manguchei at kendycem@lodinews.com.

First published: Thursday, September 7, 2006

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