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Real People

Tales of Joy

Tales of Joy Program Director Theresa McKinney and her dogs Doc Holliday and Jesse (James stayed home) Handler Dave and his dog Cassie

Tales of joy

—Margaret M. Nava

Can dogs read? Jesse, Doc Holliday, Arlo, and Cassie seem to think so—just ask them. Their wagging tales will give you the answer.

Jesse, Doc, Arlo, and Cassie are just a few of the trained and certified dogs that take part in the Tales of Joy R.E.A.D. ® Program in Rio Rancho Public Schools. Program Director Theresa McKinney describes the program: “We are an affiliate of Intermountain Therapy Animals of Salt Lake City, Utah, who founded Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D. ®) in 1999. When I started our Rio Rancho group in January 2006, we had five teams (dog and handler) that provided one-on-one tutoring intervention to help elementary school students improve reading skills. This year, we have sixteen teams. Research with therapy animals indicates that children with low self-esteem or some sort of learning disability are often more willing to interact with an animal than another person. They focus better when an animal is present and are inclined to forget about their limitations. Sitting on a blanket in a quiet corner of their school library, students read aloud to a dog. If the child mispronounces or stumbles on a word, some dogs are trained to interact by touching their noses to the page or tilting their heads to one side; others just curl up next to the child and give them moral support. The dogs aren’t intimidating, they don’t criticize, and most importantly, they have a positive influence on the children.”

For the school year 2009/2010, Tales of Joy teams worked with 52 students at Colinas del Norte, Ernest Stapleton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Puesta del Sol, Sandia Vista, and Vista Grande schools. Spending approximately one half hour per week for 32 weeks, each team provided at least 16 hours of “one-on-one” reading intervention per student. Some teachers reported seeing students’ reading scores increased by one or more grade levels. Others said the dogs were therapeutic for the students, as well as for the office and school staff.

Dogs and handlers that take part in the program go through a lengthy certification process. To begin with, there are basic and advanced obedience courses that take twelve weeks or more to complete, plus a seven-week Canine Good Citizen course that teaches dogs to behave even when their handler is out of sight. Next, there is registration and evaluation by Therapy Dogs, Inc., the group involved with registration, support, and insurance for animal-assisted volunteers that visit hospitals, nursing homes, special needs centers, and schools. And finally, there are two R.E.A.D. ® evaluations of the dogs and handlers to ensure compatibility in a school or library environment. According to director McKinney, “The whole process can take from six months to a year or more for a dog to go through all the training and observation necessary to become a R.E.A.D. ® dog. It all depends on the dog. You can’t force them to become a therapy dog in a situation they’re not comfortable with. Like everything else, it’s not meant for everybody, and it’s not meant for every dog.”

Even so, she and the R.E.A.D. ® program encourage pet owners to consider becoming animal-assisted therapy handlers. “Aside from the school-setting programs, Tales of Joy R.E.A.D. ® teams visit local nursing homes, take part in year-round, monthly animal-assisted-activity programs at Loma Colorado and Esther Bone libraries, and conduct child/animal safety programs called Be Aware, Responsible, and Kind (BARK).”

McKinney attributes much of the success of the Tales of Joy R.E.A.D. ® Program to Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent V. Sue Cleveland’s openness, willingness, and total support of the program. “When I presented this program to Dr. Cleveland back in January 2006, I laid out a proposal… this is the training, this is the program. It involves reading skills. What do you think? She didn’t bat an eyelash... she didn’t hesitate. ‘Yes… go for it.’ Her unending support made the program possible, and it has grown every year.

“Probably the most important thing about this program is that it works. You know, especially with kids, sometimes you have to think outside the box. And that’s what this program is—incorporating dogs and having the willingness, the ability, and the temperament to get the dogs out there and help these kids because, without reading, they can’t go anywhere; everything becomes a chore. If we help one child improve their reading level and start them off on the road to the rest of their education, then we’ve done some right. And that’s awesome.”

So, can dogs really read? Maybe not. But in Rio Rancho and some surrounding communities, they are helping elementary school students benefit from the unique qualities that interaction with an animal can provide.

For information about the Tales of Joy R.E.A.D. ® Program in Rio Rancho, call Theresa McKinney at (505) 463-3626, or log on to In Bernalillo, contact Ms. Loeffler at Roosevelt Elementary School at (505) 867-5472, and in Cuba, contact Ms. Barron at the Cuba Community Library at (575) 289-3100. For information about the R.E.A.D. ® program, contact Intermountain Therapy Animals at (801) 272-3439 or For registration info with Therapy Dogs, Inc., call (877) 843-7364, or log on to For basic and Canine Good Citizen course information, contact Enchantment Pet Resort at (505) 891-4100 or, and follow the link for Training.






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