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Karina Oblea, 10, shares a book with mixed-breed Sadie

Sprawled on the floor, Daisy, a dark-eyed 7-year-old, reads aloud: "Chas smiled proudly. 'This is your lucky day,' he said.'" Her audience of one yawns and leans against Daisy's leg; Daisy reaches down to scratch the listener's ear. Mojo, a black Labrador retriever, sighs and settles in. It's the weekly meeting of the America Reads program in Santa Monica, Calif., which uses dogs to encourage kids to explore the world of books. After the session, Daisy tells a visitor that she likes reading to dogs because "they just sit and listen. They're calm."

Animal-assisted therapy, in which specially trained animals visit facilities ranging from hospitals to homeless shelters to assist in physical or psychological rehabilitation, isn't new. But the concept of using therapy animals in reading programs is a real-life version of teaching an old dog new tricks. The idea was the brainchild of Sandi Martin, a board member at Utah's Intermountain Therapy Animals. Looking for a way to broaden the group's outreach, she thought about how therapy dogs help kids who are sick, scared and homeless. "One of the things we know is that when kids are in the presence of animals, they'll relax," she says. "They start looking forward to the work they need to do." Why, she wondered, couldn't dogs have the same effect on kids who were shy about reading?

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There was, Martin recalls, "this pregnant pause" when she first broached the idea to the Salt Lake City library in late 1999. But she soon persuaded officials to try a pilot program. Within a few months, the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program had landed in all six of the city's branches. It has since been picked up by the school system as an after-hours program, by a residential center and by the Boys and Girls Club. And the idea has quickly spread beyond Salt Lake City to about a dozen other cities around the country, from Oregon to Maryland. Each program is run independently. Some target kids with reading troubles; others are open to all comers. The dog handlers may serve as ad hoc tutors or simply lend a sympathetic ear. All the programs are run on the cheap by volunteers from local animal-therapy groups, and it's not unusual for the handlers to dig into their own pockets to buy books, bookmarks and souvenirs for graduates. In every location, says Martin, the dog is "this nonjudgmental friend who's going to be there for you no matter what."

Because the idea is so new, there isn't yet a wealth of data behind it. But after a four-month trial in a Salt Lake City elementary school last spring, standardized reading scores rose, with two of the 10 participants going up four reading levels and the rest going up at least two. A report issued by the school also noted ancillary benefits ranging from decreased absenteeism to improved self-esteem. Martin recalls one little boy who shyly told her on the first day of the program, "I don't read very good." Martin pointed out her Portuguese water dog, Olivia, and told the boy: "You know what? Olivia doesn't know all the words either." The boy struggled that first day, but the next week he was back, and the week after that. "The fourth week," Martin recalls, "I heard this loud voice from the front of the library: 'Olivia! I got a really cool book to read to you today!' And he came flying over and plopped down to read. And when we were done, he said, 'Aww, we're done already?'" The world's a big place, but books can help make it look a little less forbidding. In Salt Lake City and nationwide, canines are helping kids learn that lesson for life.