Child Literacy and the Surprising Power of Dogs

Fifteen years ago, Virginia Beach SPCA executive director Sharon Adams began researching kindness. What is it, and how do you teach it? She could only find one real study, and its conclusion fell surprisingly close to common sense: the best way to teach kindness is to be kind. It's this interest in compassion and education that has made the Virginia Beach SPCA known, not just for its ability to help animals find homes, but also for its immense impact on the education of the youth of the community.

One of its most notable endeavors is Listening Ears, an elementary school program that encourages reluctant readers by having them read aloud to dogs. The program didn't start as an attempt to promote literacy, but was instead conceived when the VBSPCA began researching ways to tackle bullying. What it found was that bullies experience insecurity because many of them are falling behind in school, and the origin of the problem, for many kids, is trouble reading.

"We wanted to create an environment for a reluctant reader where reading isn't painful - it's enjoyable," Adams explained.

Using dogs to teach reading as an attempt to cut down on bullying is definitely a non-traditional method, but it works. In fact, when discussing the results, the word Adams keeps returning to is "magic."

"What happened was that we saw reading proficiency become measurably improved. There are a million stories that have occurred - all of them are magic, story after story after story."

One of her favorite stories involves a little girl who never uttered a word. A selective mute, teachers weren't sure what was going on behind the scenes, but many suspected there was a lot happening.

On the girl's fourth week with the program, Adams explained, the librarian "watched the girl reach over to the dog and say, 'Nice doggy.' Everybody went crazy."

 "[These kids] have seen more than you and I could ever possibly see," she continued. "They've got this shell - you cannot reach them in traditional ways. The magic of the animal is they somehow penetrate that and the child sees the vulnerability in that animal that they feel."

Adams' passion for helping struggling children comes from both her background and from the longstanding values of the shelter itself. A former parole officer with experience in human services and helping battered women, she claims she "didn't know animals" - but she did know about empathy. This experience made her a natural fit for an SPCA that had started with the proposition that preventing cruelty to animals was the task of a whole community.

"You're not going to achieve that just by having an animal shelter," she explained. "That's an outlier, what you do when it doesn't work."

She believes that to decrease cruelty, "you have to be in every dark corner of a community." By teaching respect, tolerance and empathy, you create the ideal environment - a community with an increased capacity for compassion.