NEWHALL – After the 7-year-old girl had finished reading aloud she concluded that her companion liked the story, especially the phrase “I am not your mother, I am a dog.” Brenda Aladuena’s companion was a dog, but not just any dog. The sheltie, named Tippy2, is a key component of a literacy program that employs gentle trained dogs as listeners for youngsters who find reading difficult. The dogs serve as foils for their handlers, who offer encouragement and tips. “The trainer speaks for the dog,” said Dave Valantine, a dog trainer and coordinator for local handler-dog teams that participate in the program. “We ask the child if they want the dog to help them with a word, or ‘could you explain to (the dog) what the story is about?”‘ Brenda and others who took part in the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program at the Community Center on Wednesday agreed it was a good idea. “If we don’t help students to improve their reading before they leave high school, their future is bleak,” said Terry Deloria, who also runs the Intensive Literacy Program for the William S. Hart Union High School District. “If they’re having trouble, the last thing they want to do is read to somebody. If we can hook them, to read and read successfully (the) short pieces, we can get them to read often.” The average age of community center participants is 7, but older kids are not turned away. The handlers are volunteers whose pets have lived with them for at least six months. The dogs must be at least 1 year old, very obedient, friendly and smart. The handler-dog pairs are registered to work together as active therapy teams and both must pass the muster or they both fail. The animals are therapy dogs, not service dogs. They obey their handlers, but provide service to third parties in order to improve their well-being. The Delta Society, a national registering agency for animals, provides testing protocols, lessons for the handlers and up to $1 million in liability insurance at low cost to the teams. The local teams are evaluated every couple of years. “In the evaluation, if a dog shows the least sign of aggression, they’re done,” Valantine said. Miriam Robles said her son Moises, who attends special-education classes at Emblem Elementary School, has trouble expressing himself because of a language delay. Moises has read to Tippy2 a couple of times. “I saw him enjoying himself,” Robles said. “He was so proud to do it and he showed the picture to his friends the next day.” Robles said Moises has been more enthusiastic about reading at home. The Community Center offers after-school homework help and tutoring, and its supervisor, Hope Horner, is on the lookout for new ways to increase literacy. “This is just a fun and creative way to do that,” she said. Judy O’Rourke, (661) 257-5255 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECasino Insider: Here’s a look at San Manuel’s new high limit rooms, Asian restaurant “I think it’s great you can read a book to someone who can pay attention to you,” said Cristian Rodriguez, 11. “The dog looks at you and his ear goes back so he can hear.” Cristian and his friend Mario Villanueva took turns reading to Valantine’s black Labrador, Bonnie, petting Bonnie as each other read. Homework counselors help choose suitable books, which lone children read for 15 minutes to the handler-dog team. A 139-pound Great Dane named Barkley – taller than some of the readers – was among the four teams on hand Wednesday. The handlers, though not professional literacy tutors, are taught reading support skills. They read to the dogs for several weeks to prepare them. When the kids are finished reading, they snap take-home photos of the activity. The effectiveness of the READ program has not been proved scientifically, but many participants say it empowers youngsters, boosting their self-esteem and fluency. The director of special programs for the high school district, who is not familiar with the program, said encouraging students to read more often is beneficial.