reading to dogs

During a nosy poke into the basement of a used bookstore (I can’t help myself) in a little town on the coast of British Columbia, I found a cozy, nicely furnished room with rugs, tiny chairs and tables, short bookshelves filled with thin books, and intriguing pictures of children reading to dogs.

Researchers report that children who read to dogs improve their fluency by up to 30 percent. Kids who read to dogs say, “I feel relaxed when I’m reading to a dog because I’m having fun,” and “The dogs don’t care if you read really, really bad so you just keep going.” Reading to a dog is a way of practicing reading without feeling judged.

A friend told me about a professional conference she went to where many of the attendees said they wanted to write a book. My friend would ask, “What have you written so far?” thinking they’d have blogs or work-related brochures – something – but many of those aspiring writers hadn’t written and didn’t write. They weren’t practicing.

This may alarm some aspiring writers, but writing requires the action of writing. Writing a book, for instance, requires practicing writing a book. So how do we practice without feeling judged? How do we find or create a way to write badly while we learn, without stopping because we’re writing badly and feeling judged for it?

And who’s doing the judging? The ego, of course, which loves nothing more than to be an expert (preferably the expert) and which cringes at the thought of imperfection. The ego would have us believe that we have to choose between perfection and learning: Either you start perfect or you don’t do it at all. But the ego is not the part of you that writes. You have to write in spite of the ego.

Just start somewhere. Just. Start. Somewhere. Write a letter, by hand, to your mom, put it in an envelope with a stamp on it and stick it into a mailbox. There! You’ve written something and sent it out into the world. Ta da!

Or take your putrid, no-good, vile excuse for a first really, really rough chapter of your eye-rollingly horrid book (that’s the ego’s view) and a folding chair into the woods behind your house and unfold the chair in front of the friendliest, wisest tree you see (don’t look too long or it’ll be dinnertime and you won’t have done anything except successfully avoid the issue) and read what you’ve written aloud to the tree. Not at the tree, mind you, but to the tree, as though the tree cares about you and loves you. A tree (or any other natural, non-human thing, like a rock) provides a judgment-free audience for practicing your craft, for gaining the courage to begin and to continue.

Even if you feel foolish as you do it, share what you write with an audience that loves you right now, so you can begin right now. A tree, for example, can transmute even the wobbliest voice and the most tentative writing into sap and leaves and the air you breathe as you read. It can give you something back to sustain you.

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For general information about reading to dogs programs, check out R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) online, which includes a listing of program participants by state and country.

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