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How Dogs In Germany Are Helping Children Learn To Read

Take your time, sound it out...W-o-o....WOOF!
Take your time, sound it out...W-o-o....WOOF!
Hannes Vollmuth

MUNICH - It is shortly past 10 a.m. in a Munich middle school and Tammy is lying on the floor, muzzle tucked between his paws, stomach rising and falling gently as he breathes in and out, apparently asleep. Occasionally, when Salma leafs through the pages of her book, the dog’s eyes blink open then shut again, but there’s not a peep out of him.

"Paul the panda is lazy," Salma reads out loud. Tammy still doesn’t move. "Edward the squirrel takes a little nap in the tree,” she continues. Now Tammy appears to be deeply asleep.

Every Thursday, Salma runs to her school’s library in Munich’s Haidhausen neighborhood to be with Tammy. She throws a cushion as big as a chair on the floor, and reaches for a book. The dog lies nearby. The girl, who was born in Somalia and is 12-years-old, strokes Tammy. Six months ago she struggled with her reading – getting every word out was a mini-victory. Today she reads without hesitation: "Willi the puppy forgot his bone."

Salma has 15 minutes with Tammy, a Golden Retriever with a yellow coat and a white tummy. During this time, she reads to the dog. Whether Tammy is sleeping, dozing, or awake and listening, it's all the same to Salma. Tammy is a reading tutor. So how does that work?

"A dog doesn’t correct you, it just listens," says Kimberly Grobholz, a woman with grey hair and laugh wrinkles around her eyes. She sits near Tammy, stroking the canine’s ears. Grobholz speaks German with a melodious accent that gives away her American origins. She brought the concept to Germany from the U.S., where there are thousands of dogs that listen as children read to them aloud from a book.

Anybody in this Munich school who goes to read to Tammy on Thursdays either is afraid of reading aloud, has reading difficulties, or doesn’t like books. "Being around the dog relaxes and motivates children," Grobholz says. Relating to the animal is crucial. "The kids lose their fear with Tammy."

International comparisons reveal again and again that the reading abilities of German children are only middling. Among 15-year-olds, 18.5% are weak readers. Fear and shame play a role in this. “When reading begins to take on negative associations, having something positive connected with it can make it seem attractive again,” says reading researcher Cordula Artelt, a professor at the University of Bamberg who holds the chair for Empirical Education Research.

Human happiness hormones

For the children at Munich’s Wörthschule school, the positive reinforcement is Tammy the Golden Retriever. This would come as no surprise to animal therapists who have long known that contact with dogs stimulates human happiness hormones.

Ten children are reading today. They come from Somalia, Macedonia, Turkey and Slovakia and also Germany. Some of them have been going to the “Lesehund” (“reading dog”) for years. In English, the terms reading dog, as well as tutor dog, are used.

"In Germany, tutor dogs are still unknown," says pioneer Grobholz, "but they definitely help children." She started her project in 2008 in Munich but there are now similar projects in a number of German cities including Mainz, Augsburg, Weiden in der Oberpfalz and Bremen. Grobholz sits near the reading kids and very occasionally helps them out, "but not too much, that’s the deal," she says.

The children come to read to Tammy because their teacher has sent them there. "Children who go regularly to read to the tutor dog also read better in class," says German teacher Margreth Außerlechner. Children with reading difficulties usually fall behind in their schoolwork – and then because they are laughed at by the other children, their lack of confidence about reading only gets worse. But with Tammy the children feel more confident. "And they participate more in class, too," says the teacher, scratching Tammy on the ear.

Grobholz would like to set up reading with tutor dogs all over Germany. Before she started taking Tammy to schools, which she does for free, she used to take Tammy to retirement homes on a volunteer basis. Everywhere she took the dog she saw how positively people reacted to it. The dog requires no training, but must be "stress-resistant, calm, and like children."

Tammy is kept on a leash while the children read. In between reading sessions the dog gets a dog treat to eat. However until the gong announces that an hour has passed, the dog remains lying down and doesn’t bark a single time – as usual. It just listens. Or at least that’s the impression he gives.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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