Lisa Marie Miller, Deseret News archives
This 2004 file photo shows an Intermountain Therapy Animals' Reading Education Assistance Dog. The program provides support for students struggling to read at grade level by connecting them with a supportive canine audience.
We never claim that we first had the idea of reading to dogs. We look back at history and there’s lots of evidence of people reading to their dogs. We just put a training module behind it of how to incorporate the therapy animals into it, provided a structure. —Karen Burns, Intermountain Therapy Animals

PARK CITY — With a picture book open in her lap, third-grader Ava Bretts scratches the head of the tiger-striped Plott hound lying next to her.

“It’s really cool to have a dog in your class and to get to read to her,” Ava said, stroking the dog’s fur. “Dixie is always a good listener and she never talks or interrupts.”

As a student in Randee Kadziel’s third-grade class at Parley's Park Elementary School, Ava sees Dixie once a week through Intermountain Therapy Animals’ “Reading Education Assistance Dogs” or READ program. Using trained and registered therapy animals, the program provides support for students struggling to read at grade level by connecting them with a supportive canine audience.

“We want to provide the kids with a nonthreatening environment where they can read out loud to our dogs and not be teased or laughed at while they practice those skills,” said Karen Burns, assistant regional director for Intermountain Therapy Animals.

Dixie's owner, Jan Nemcik, has volunteered with READ for eight years. Like most program volunteers, Nemcik swears by its theory.

"There's no judgment," said Nemcik, a retired elementary school teacher. "Dixie doesn’t snicker, Dixie doesn’t laugh, Dixie doesn’t correct. Dixie just sits here and listens.”

Nemcik and Dixie make up one of roughly 350 Utah READ volunteer teams. As volunteer ranks have expanded, the program has grown to service more than 30 elementary schools between Logan and Utah County.

"We have a waiting list that just never stops growing," Burns said.

Among volunteers and students alike, the program's popularity is increasingly widespread. Since beginning in Utah in 1999, the program has spread to all 50 states and 15 additional countries via an Intermountain Therapy Animals training manual.

But, Burns said, Utah can only take so much credit.

“We never claim that we first had the idea of reading to dogs,” she said. “We look back at history and there’s lots of evidence of people reading to their dogs. We just put a training module behind it of how to incorporate the therapy animals into it, provided a structure."

Burns attributes the program's popularity to its self-evident benefits.

"There’s physiological changes that will just help them start reading and feel more comfortable," she said. "Just the simple fact that they’re sitting next to a dog and they’re petting it lowers their blood pressure."

Other recorded physiological benefits of engaging with an animal include reduced anxiety, lowered heart and breathing rates, and "a tendency to forget about pain and limitations," according to the program's website.

Although READ does compare children's test results before and after participating in the program, Burns said successes become apparent long before that.

"The benefits are so much more than just improved grades," she said.

Nemcik recalled working with a boy who would only read while pressed against the floor, his voice muffled by carpet. After several weeks of work with Dixie, Nemcik said the boy could read out loud comfortably, provided he kept a hand on the dog's back.

"He had a terrible time turning pages," she laughed. "But that is a great success to me."

Student A.J. Silianoff said Dixie has helped him progress, too. Since beginning the program, A.J. has advanced from the middle group to the highest reading group in his class.

“When I came I wasn’t a really good reader. … I feel really good about myself now, though," he said. "Dixie really helped me.”

“It’s kind of scary when you’re reading in front of a whole bunch of people," explained Sophia Kenton. "But you can usually trust an animal."

Nemcik said she plans to continue volunteering indefinitely.

"We love every minute of what we do," she said, patting Dixie affectionately. "I can't say enough about it."

Email: aoligschlaeger@deseretnews.com, Twitter: allisonoctober