As a child, I struggled with reading aloud. I know well the paralysis that comes with performance anxiety: The mind goes blank, the words get stuck, and nothing comes out. If I was worried what the teacher thought, how I ranked, how I was doing, or what my friends were thinking, I was cooked. What would have helped me was the ministry of a reading dog.
Today, elementary schools and libraries across the country have programs for kids who are like I was. For example, a few days a week at schools in the Northeast, leaders from The Good Dog Foundation bring dogs to the school library. A child sits down on the floor next to a dog and reads aloud from a book. There is something magical about it. After lying next to Pepper, a slightly overweight border collie, and reading him a book, seven-year-old Jessicah, who has always hated reading, says to the volunteer, “[He] loves when I tell him stories. I think he likes stories about turtles best, and so do I. He’s the coolest dog in the whole world.”
I can vividly imagine what it would be like to be the child in that situation. To read to a dog whose big eyes took me in with simple pleasure, who laid her head on my lap with absolute ease to listen to my voice, would have made for an entirely different experience. The dog would have exuded patience, unconditional acceptance, and peace. The words I botched terribly would have captivated the dog every bit as much as the ones read perfectly. In that one-on-one relationship, the anxiety, self-doubt, and panic I used to feel about not being able to do something would have faded.
That’s the power of a dog’s attention. It moves us out of powerlessness, granting us the clear sense that we matter, that our timeline is the right one, that everything is going to be just fine. Barbara Christy, a third-grade teacher and facilitator of the reading club, concurs, saying, “Kids who used to slink into a room are walking tall with their shoulders back and head[s] up. One young man used to stutter; now his speech is nearly stutter-free. I tell everyone there’s magic occurring every week in this classroom.”
I’ll admit, the theologian in me sees at work in this scenario not magic but the ministry of God. Whether it’s my dog, Kirby, on my couch or a reading dog with an insecure kid in a school library, I see a powerful invitation to experience Sabbath. Sabbath is a ritual where we put down all our striving and simply rest, by God’s invitation, in God’s promise and provision. It is a time for healing. It reminds us that no matter what the world says about us, or what we say about ourselves, only another, higher power has the final say—that, at least for this moment, all is well.
Adapted from The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul. Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Root. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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