Many children struggle with reading aloud in class. To help them improve and build confidence, an innovative program uses dogs to create a casual way to help students with special learning needs experience a positive reading experience.  For producer Aunshuman Apte, VOA's Jim Bertel has more on learning to read with the help of a four-legged friend.

Today it is story time at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School near Washington, D.C.  Meet the audience: Dune, the Labrador. He is all ears for the story that seven-year-old Del Toro is reading him. The two met a year ago and now they regularly spend story time together.

Del and Dune are part of a literacy program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs or READ.  Launched in 1999, READ is now in schools and libraries across the United States. 

Dog trainer Janet Golden says reading to dogs creates a relaxed environment for the children. "They will read to Dune. Dune is non-judgmental. He listens. He is not going to make fun of them."

Third-grader Rebecca Torvik agrees. "If every kid could, then I think everyone would like to do it because it is so fun."

Literacy experts say children become visibly relaxed and their blood pressure drops when they read to therapy dogs. Rebecca is now closer to the reading level of her peers after spending more than a year reading to Goldie.  Her mother, Lisa Torvik, is delighted with the results. "I like the smile that I get everyday. You know, when she comes out of there she always has a big grin on her face."

That is the point -- using dogs to inspire children to read.