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Matt Jacobs ’14 Starts Program that Uses Dogs to Help Children Learn to Read

As she concentrates on each syllable, a young girl reads aloud to a golden retriever and practices her reading skills.

She is one of six elementary school students participating in Andover Books and Reading for Kids (BARKS), a community service project started this fall by Matt Jacobs ’14. The program aims to improve the reading skills and confidence of students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

“[Reading to dogs] fosters a non-judgmental reading environment, helping [children] learn to read faster,” Jacobs said. “When [the children] are reading, even if they say a word wrong, they still think they’re doing great ,and it makes it more fun. It helps them build up confidence.”

So far, Jacobs has run three sessions, one in October and two last weekend, at local libraries in the Andover area, including the Andover Memorial Public Library and the Reading Public Library.

During each session, the children read to therapy dogs for 15 minutes, according to Jacobs.

“One girl, on Sunday in the Reading [Public] Library, came to the program, and you could tell [she] was pretty nervous about reading, and she had a few speech problems,” Jacobs said.

“At first you could see she was missing some words, but about halfway through the reading session, all of a sudden, she started relaxing and really enjoying it, and she did much better. And her dad was listening through the window and was saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard her read like that,’” Jacobs continued.

Jacobs is currently the only Andover student involved in the project, but he plans to enlist the help of interested students to expand BARKS. The next session will take place on January 5.

The science behind the benefits of “reading to dogs” has been developing over the past five years, according to Jacobs.

Last year, the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine published a study on “reading assistance dogs.” In the study, second graders who read aloud to dogs for 30 minutes each week over the summer experienced a slight increase in reading ability and an improved attitude towards reading by the end of the season, while those who read to people experienced slight decreases in both regards.

Jacobs began working on the project over the summer and practiced with his own dog and local children in his neighborhood.

“My mom is friends with a few people in my town [Weston, Mass.] who have therapy dogs, and they told her a little bit about the concept, and she told me. I thought it was a really interesting idea. I love dogs, and I love kids, so I started the project,” Jacobs said.

“My main goal is just for kids to have fun and to help them learn to read and develop a love for reading,” he added.

According to Jacobs, all the Andover BARKS dogs are from certified therapy dog groups in the Boston area.

Therapy dogs are commonly used to provide comfort to people in hospitals and nursing homes, according to the Therapy Dogs International (TDI) website. To be registered as a therapy dog, dogs and owners must pass a 15-part test administered by TDI evaluators.

Because submissions for new community service projects for this year were due last spring, Jacobs’ project runs independently from Andover’s Community Service Office.

In an e-mail to The Phillipian, Monique Cueto-Potts, Director of Community Service, wrote, “We decide each spring which programs will be sponsored by the [Community Service] Office for the following school year so that we have ample time to plan for them… We do offer advice to and try to help students with ideas for programs [that are] run independently of the office.”