In Their Hearts, Dogs Can Read by Carlie Sorosiak
The first time I read an entire book aloud, it was to a German shorthaired pointer named Sally. She had the softest ears, the wiggliest butt, and man, was she fast. I used to watch her from my swing-set, tearing mad circles around our neighbor’s yard.
I was a quiet kid. And in Charlotte, North Carolina in the mid-1990s, if you didn’t like NASCAR, there wasn’t a ton to do. I remember spending half a summer fiddling around with my dad’s scientific calculator, pretending I was a bookstore clerk and tallying up imaginary purchases. I’d also meticulously cut out borrower’s cards for each of my books, then lent them out strategically to my mother. So, when Sally moved in next door, it was a revelation.
She brought me pinecones in the afternoon. And I brought her books.
I’d plop myself in the grass, right by the fence, and read to her until stars started winking in the sky. She’d sit patiently, attentively. Maybe she was just happy that someone was paying attention to her; she was outside most days, rain or shine. But I like to think that Sally understood much more than people gave her credit for—that when I read her The Secret Garden, she was traveling with me.
This continued every day for over a year. Me, reading aloud. Her, listening. I sorted through my growing library, selecting the most dog-friendly books—all my favorites. Harry the Dirty Dog. Moe the Dog in Tropical Paradise. The Incredible Journey. If Sally wasn’t reading with her mind, she was certainly reading with her heart. And she helped me do the same.
Studies have proven that reading to dogs improves children’s attitudes towards literacy, and nowadays, there are plenty of afterschool programs that provide kids with books, then pair them with shelter dogs. Think of all the good this is doing: promoting literacy while lowering stress levels of both the kids and the dogs. Anecdotal evidence also shows that dogs who’ve been read to have a greater chance of adoption, as reading is a form of socialization.
After a year, my family adopted Sally—and she lived and loved with us for the next sixteen years. Every evening, we had family reading time, gathering on the futon in our living room. Sally was very much a part of this, lounging by the fire if it was burning (Sally loved nothing more than being tremendously warm). Sometimes she peered over my shoulder when I was flipping through my children’s encyclopedia, pausing at the dog section. I told her about Fang in Harry Potter, and together we wondered how a dog could drool so excessively. When I read Where the Red Fern Grows in fifth grade, I ran home and sobbed into her fur; I told her it was the saddest book I’d ever read, and for the rest of her very long life, she watched me peek into the back of every dog book, checking to ensure that the dog had survived.
Then came Ralph, my golden retriever (the inspiration for Cosmo in my debut middle grade novel, I, Cosmo). Ralph was a fluffy tornado, and he was all heart. Sally hated him at first—his puppy-ness, his maleness—but eventually, she warmed to him. Two years in, they were inseparable. By this time, I was thirteen years old, and I’d just finished writing my first novel: a horribly plotless book called Lady of the Tree, where the characters did almost nothing except frantically rush around on horses. I was so, so nervous to share my writing with anyone. So I shared it with Sally and Ralph first: anxiously reading the pages aloud, feeding them biscuits at the end of each chapter.
They told me it was good. Or at least that the biscuits were good, and that they loved me. For a new writer, this encouragement was more than enough.
The tradition continues with my American dingo, Dany. I’m almost thirty years old now, and still reading to dogs. Dany has a complicated relationship with literature. She rather famously ate the last pages of Art of Racing in the Rain (where—sorry, spoiler—the dog dies); I like to think that she imagined a better ending for her canine compatriot. But she’s there when I need her, snoozing under my desk as I write—and whimpering at me when it’s time to step away from my computer for a while. The outdoors is always waiting.
I have a painting of Ralph and Sally, too, right by my bookshelf. They remind me that I once was a little girl, who dreamed of being a writer, who had dogs that believed she could do anything. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
Carlie Sorosiak is the author of I, Cosmo, a Kirkus Best Book of 2019, as well as two novels for young adults, Wild Blue Wonder and If Birds Fly Back. Her work has been translated into over a dozen languages. By day, she’s a creative writing professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and lives in Marietta, Georgia, with her husband and their American dingo.