Bring Cara Back! Stolen Service Dog!

Imagine experiencing severe anxiety over the smallest unknowns or changes in your plans. Some of you might not have to imagine it because it’s real for you, but for the rest of us, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to simulate.

For 9-year-old Otto, anxiety is a manifestation of autism, and it can make it impossible for him to function. Variables that seem small to most of us can make or break his day, and his one constant is Cara, his Skilled Companion (a type of assistance dog) from Canine Companions for Independence. Tragically, she was stolen on Friday afternoon, and his family is desperate to find her.


Above: Cara rests her head on Otto’s chest. Otto smiles; Cara has a look of contentment.

Cara was last seen at her family’s home in La Jolla, California, on Friday afternoon. She is not microchipped, nor is she wearing a collar, due to a hot spot on her neck. She’s a 55 pound lab-retriever mix, and is highly trained, so will respond to commands such as “here,” “sit,” and “down.” She has a tattoo in her right ear of her ID number: 11695. She’s also on medication for a bad ear infection, and will have gone without it for a few days now, so her ears are likely sensitive and red.

The family is offering a reward for her return.

If you see something suspicious, contact the San Diego Police Department at 619-531-2000 or 858-484-3154 regarding case # 14039621.


Friendliness—it’s in the DNA of most service dogs. We know that they work hard to stay focused while they’re on duty, but few things give my own service dog greater pleasure than saying hello to a stranger, and I bet the case is the same for yours. Unfortunately, that quality which makes them so lovable also makes them susceptible to kidnapping, and unlike kids, we can’t teach them to be wary of the strange man offering candy.

The American Kennel Club reported a 31% increase in dog thefts from 2012 to 2013; perpetrators are getting braver, even sneaking into fenced backyards and targeting easy-to-steal, high-value breeds.

How you can help:

Share this post or any you may have seen on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Stolen dogs can end up anywhere, so don’t ignore them just because you don’t live in Southern California.

Check your area’s craigslist and newspaper for dogs for sale.

Print the flyer and take it to your local pet food store, dog park, and anywhere else dog lovers might go.

Keep your eyes peeled. There have been news stories in the San Diego area, and if the thief has caught wind, he or she may have dumped Cara. If you see a lab wandering, use the “here” or “sit” command; if the dog responds, check the ears for the tattoo number listed above.


Above: Otto crouches facing a beanbag chair on which Cara, his 55 pound lab, lies. Otto’s mother is hugging him from behind.

Thank you in advance for helping to bring Cara back!

Back on the trail.

Hi, Friends. It’s been awhile!

The last time I posted here (in January–eek!), I was introducing the creative project I’m working on, Sidekicks. I gave myself permission to take some time off from HOFL because I needed to focus on getting that off the ground, and here I am, four months later, realizing how much time I’ve allowed to pass. I’ve found out how loyal an audience I have, though, through readers reaching out to ask when to expect something new!

So, I’ll ease back in with a little update on our last few months.

Continue reading

Introducing: Sidekicks

Last week, I asked for your participation in a project that my friend Melanie and I are working on. As of that post, we had a broad vision of what we wanted to accomplish, no name, and the only progress we’d made was that we’d made a secret Pinterest Pinboard. That’s essential, I’m told.

Today, I’m happy to say that we have a name, a photoshoot under our belts and several more in the works, a web domain, and an elevator pitch, albeit shaky at the moment, and also subject to change. Apparently elevator pitches are also essential. Continue reading

I Need Your Help!

Have you ever noticed that portrayals of people with disabilities in the media (which are rare to begin with) usually focus on physical discrepancies and differences, rather than highlighting beauty as they do for able bodied models? I have. It bugs me. It’s like able bodied people are retouched to look more perfect and people with disabilities are retouched to look more…disabled. Continue reading

An Open Letter To The Vigilantes

To the Vigilantes:

We need to reimagine what it looks like to hold people accountable for taking advantage of and misusing things like service dog laws and accessible parking spaces, cause you’re breaking my heart.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate and admire your enthusiasm and zest for encouraging others to do the right thing and shaming them when they blatantly disregard the law. You’re braver and more dedicated than I.

There’s one small problem when it comes to many disability-related issues, though: The majority of them are not visible to the naked, untrained eye.

“No, I have a sense for these things. I can tell,” you say.

Let me clear something up for you. Playing detective by watching someone park in an accessible spot and exit the vehicle in a standing position, then concluding that he or she has stolen Grandma’s parking permit is not a demonstration of your sixth sense. It’s actually a shining example of what happens when you make assumptions – you look like an ass. Or something like that.

You’re trying to help. Great. I love it. But let’s see what happens when your well-intentioned attempts are ill conceived:

An 18 year old me, freshly moved into my dorm room after a summer of fighting with the college administration about whether or not my service dog would be allowed on campus and whether all of my classes could be moved to accessible spaces (everything was a struggle that first year), emerges from Target with a lapful of dorm essentials and two of my best friends. We have a well-rehearsed routine; I go right to the driver’s door and grab the handle for stability as I stand up, and one of the guys grabs my chair and loads it into the back of my Rav4 while I get situated in my seat. Normally, we’d pull out of that accessible parking space and be on our way without a second thought. Not this time.

“You don’t look real disabled to me,” shouts a big ugly guy with a beard from across the parking lot. (To be clear, I like beards.)

“Excuse me?”

“I said, you don’t look disabled!” he yells with growing animosity, and gives me the finger.

Yep. A grown man gave an 18 year old girl the finger.

Not just any 18 year old girl. An 18 year old that had undergone a bunch of painful operations and spent much of her young life fighting to be treated as an equal to her peers, all because of that disability you’re not totally sure she has.

This was after a surgery I had 3 years prior to this particular story. I was 15.

This was after a surgery I had 3 years prior to this particular story. I was 15. That I didn’t “look” real disabled at the time of the incident should have been a celebration, not an accusation.

My response to him that day isn’t even worth mentioning because I was so caught off guard. I think I just mumbled something about my wheelchair. I was mad and embarrassed, and all I could think about was how unfair of him it was to make such a personal judgment about me. (Any assumption about a person’s disability is very personal, by the way.)

Clearly, he hadn’t seen my chair; so, what did he see?

As he pulled into his parking spot in his huge, obnoxious, gas guzzling pickup truck, he saw three young people getting into an SUV that was displaying a disabled parking placard and parked in an accessible spot. He made a quick decision about what he saw: Regardless of the placard, these people didn’t fit his idea of disabled, and therefore, they were doing something wrong. Maybe he had a more “traditionally” disabled family member so it felt personal to him, or maybe he was just on a crusade because it made him feel like he was in charge. What he’ll probably never know is that he hurt the person he was supposedly trying to help.

I’d just won a battle with mainstream culture – my college – and this encounter totally put a damper on my victory. You see, confrontations like this are just nasty little reminders that I don’t really fit into anyone’s idea of normal. Not able bodied enough to be a normally regular, but not disabled-looking enough to be normally disabled. I’m not just being melodramatic when I say it wrecked my day.

I’m not the only one with stories like that one, and it’s certainly not the only one I have. Most of my friends who have disabilities – particularly young adults who drive and work – have had similar experiences. There was a story that made headlines a few months ago about a man in his 30s who had his BMW parked in an accessible space with his placard displayed. A stranger made an assumption based entirely on the type of vehicle and stuck a nasty note in the door handle. Turns out, this guy is an incomplete quad, just like me, and just happens to be professionally successful. Imagine that. A guy in a wheelchair who works hard and makes enough money to buy nice things. Unbelievable.

His wife responded by posting a photo of the note and a response to it on Facebook, and she brought up an excellent point. That is, if seeing a successful, hard-working person with a disability (or their possessions or significant others) causes such cognitive dissonance, it’s a problem. On the one hand, we want to empower people with disabilities to be independent, and on the other hand, we don’t believe it when we see it.

Mixed messages, folks. My head is spinning. I’m tired of being commended for being so normal (excuse me while I gag) one minute and then stared down ten minutes later when I pull into an accessible parking space or walk into a business establishment with my service dog. I’d really love to live in a world where, if I ever have a child with a disability, I don’t have to say, “Now be sure to look really disabled, Sweetie. We wouldn’t want one of those crazies ruining our day.”

I swear I’m not just here to complain. I have a solution, and it’s actually pretty easy. Are you ready, my Civilian Crime Fighters??

Instead of getting prematurely angry and making accusations, keep your cool and…wait for it…ask a question.

A couple of months ago, I was trying to find a parking space in a crowded public lot, and there was a car idling and not displaying a placard in an accessible space, and there was a woman in the passenger’s seat. This was the lot where I parked for work, and a lack of placards in the precious few accessible spaces was a common problem, so I was especially irritated. If I’d acted on it, I’d have thrown a fit and told her to move, but because I’ve been there, I knew that sometimes people forget to put their placards up. Maybe the driver had a disability and had just forgotten.

I got out of my car, tapped on the passenger’s window, and asked if she had a permit to park there. Her response: “Oh! I forgot to put it up! I’m sorry!”

Whether it was the appropriate use of the placard or not wasn’t up to me to decide, and it’s not up to you, Dear Vigilante. As any well adjusted human being knows, there’s often more to a story than meets the eye. If her response had been, “No, but my friend just ran inside and we’ll be gone in a minute,” I’d have guilt tripped the crap out of her and then told her she had to the count of ten to get the car out of that spot or I was calling the police. I’ve done it before. It’s quite vindicating, but only when I’m certain that the offender is actually offending.

So, what about identifying fake service dogs? A reader sent me a message recently and said she’d be happy to confront people if she knew how to tell if a dog was legitimate or not, and she wanted to know if I had any suggestions. The truth is, you really can’t tell just by looking. You can definitely tell whether a dog is well mannered or not, but it’s impossible to know if they’re legally compliant.

Two people might have poorly behaved service dogs – one with a hidden disability and one with a visible disability – and I guarantee you that the person with the hidden disability will get harassed and the other won’t, at least not on the issue of legitimacy. The problem of a bad service dog is totally separate from that of a fake one, so please be careful not to confuse them.

My suggestion: Again, ask a question. “Oh, what a pretty dog! I’m really interested in service dogs…do you mind if I ask how she helps you?” In this scenario, you’ve expressed interest instead of suspicion. If the dog’s legitimate, the handler will likely be happy to indulge you, at least for a minute, and no harm done. If not, the handler will either feel embarrassed and make up a lie, or they’ll confess, which actually happens more than you’d expect. Some people have no shame. None.

If they confess, you have the opportunity  to give them a piece of your mind, and then, by all means, please do. Unleash the fury you’ve kept bottled up since your last family get-together or you child’s last soccer game (that referee was a damn joke, and you know it) and make sure the entitled, conscienceless jerk has nightmares. You’re my hero.

Can we agree that it’s not nice to scream at (or leave notes for, or stare down, or whisper about) people who aren’t doing anything wrong, though, and that it might be worth the little bit of extra work to avoid making them feel like garbage? And can we also agree that it’s time to open our minds to the idea that folks with disabilities might look just like folks without them?

You’re reasonable people, so I think we can.

Giving Tuesday: Sometimes Givers Need Help

I like the idea of taking a day the week after the craziest, greediest shopping day of the year and making it about giving instead of getting.

Today, Rebecca Vogel and her family could use some help.

Rebecca’s a vet student at Cornell University and a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence. That means that while pursuing a pretty intense degree, she’s volunteering a good amount of her own time and money to raise puppies to be trained as service dogs for folks with disabilities.

Thanksgiving week, Rebecca and her puppy in training, Kip, were heading home to New Hampshire from school when they were involved in an auto wreck with a semi truck. Her injuries, a traumatic brain injury and crushed vertebrae, require surgery, at least one of which she’s already had. Sadly, Kip was lost in the crash.

When someone is injured, there are many expenses involved. Even with good insurance, there are things that aren’t covered. For example, Rebecca’s family is staying with her in Albany while she’s in the hospital, and it’s always expensive to stay out of town for an extended period of time, especially right around the holidays. There are also lost wages, which can be devastating this time of year.

On this Giving Tuesday, consider giving something to a young woman whose whole life is focused on giving. Honor Kip and show love to Rebecca by making sure that as Hanukkah winds down, the Vogels know that they’re cared for and that Rebecca’s commitment to making others’ lives better is appreciated.

All but $1,000 of everything donated will go directly to assisting the Vogels during this difficult time, including sending flowers to the hospital. In Kip’s memory, $1,000 will be donated to Canine Companions for Independence.

Click here to give.

This photo of Rebecca and puppy was taken from her fundraising site at

This photo of Rebecca and puppy was taken from her fundraising site at

Keep Thanksgiving Happy

How many of us treat our pups as family members?

*Raises hand sheepishly.*

Thanksgiving is a holiday of grazing. We eat, and eat, and eat. Turkey, stuffing, pies, mashed potatoes and gravy, squash, casseroles (or as we Midwesterners say, “hot dish”), cookies, roasted veggies, the list goes on and on and on…and on. Then we take a turkey-induced nap, then we eat again.

When our furry relatives look up at us with those big, beautiful, pleading eyes, our hearts melt, and we hand over our leftovers.

But beware: some foods that humans can consume without a problem are toxic to dogs and can turn your holiday upside down. Erin Callaghan, a dog trainer and consultant in the Bay Area, sent me a really great list of things to be sure Bright doesn’t get ahold of this Thanksgiving:

Chocolate – Erin explains that the more theobromine in the chocolate, the worse it is – dark chocolate and cooking chocolate have high amounts of theobromine.

Onions, grapes, and raisins – These can be hidden in many different dishes, including stuffing, casseroles, and salads.

Yeast – Watch out for curious noses while you’re baking.

Coffee, coffee grounds, and other caffeinated beverages – Caffeine, a relative of theobromine, is poisonous and can cause death in small dogs.

Alcohol – Yes, I know you have a story about when you lived in a frat house and the frat dog drank beer all the time and he was fine. Don’t take the chance, though. If you’re giving your dog alcohol, it’s probably for your own entertainment, and you’d feel awful if he had a bad reaction.

Xylitol – Used as a sugar substitute and found in many sugarless candies and gum.

Hops – Brewing beer at home is getting to be more and more popular; just be sure to keep your supplies out of the reach of your dog.

Marijuana – Stuffing your bird with something special? Don’t feed it to the dog. It’s poison. And don’t comment here if you did. The DEA will find you.

That’s not a comprehensive list by a long shot, but hopefully it hits most of the things your dog is likely to encounter on the feast-iest day of the year. And remember, you don’t have to offer it for your furry ninja to get his paws on it – “I swear, all I did was blink. He ate an entire hot dish while I blinked.” Pay attention so that your holiday isn’t interrupted by a trip to the emergency vet.

On that note, be sure to have the phone number for the emergency vet on hand at all times – in the event of any ingestion of poison, your dog’s life depends on your speedy response.

In any case, if you want to include your pup in the holiday and make it a special day for him, Erin suggests extra playtime or a new toy instead of taking a gamble on new foods. When he’s not having his stomach pumped, the cutest member of your family will thank you, and Thanksgiving will stay happy.

No treats necessary - a little extra attention and a new ball will be more than enough!

No treats necessary – a little extra attention and a new ball will be more than enough!

Things That Are Awkward With a Service Dog

As much as I love my big, adorable, squishy helper, she can make life really awkward sometimes. It’s probably a little like having a small child, except people mostly expect to see children in public.

Using public restrooms.

It’s really uncomfortable to talk to Bright in the bathroom when other people can’t see what’s going on, but unfortunately, it’s also necessary. No matter how quietly I speak to her, it echoes, so I usually whisper, but that’s even weirder because, when whispered, sit sometimes sounds like sh*t, and down can sound like d*mn. I’d hate to know what the lady in the next stall is thinking as she hears me whispering what sound like expletives to no one while I sit on the toilet.

Then there’s the tail or nose under the stall wall issue. One time, a lady actually screamed when Bright’s tail slid into her stall.

Bright in the bathroom

Eating at Asian restaurants.

Let’s not dance around the truth, here. When taking a dog into an Asian restaurant, there’s about a 50% chance I’ll be met at the door by a lady in her 50s or 60s who is adamant that we stay outside. (I should mention that the other 50% of the time, the experience is usually great!) Yeah, I’ve heard all the jokes about dog meat in Chinese food, but honestly, I find that this is usually a small, family owned business and the lady greeting me at the door only knows the health codes that prohibit animals from restaurants, and she’s not aware of the ADA which allows them. Really, what makes things uncomfortable is the language barrier. Try explaining ADA laws to someone whose primary English vocabulary revolves around the restaurant industry. There’s very little overlap there. It’s painful for both sides.

"Ma, I think I need thumbs for these."

“Ma, I think I need thumbs for these.”

Wedding ceremonies.

Bright has army crawled her gorgeous mug into at least one fancy ceremony photo, and nearly tripped the bride on her way down the aisle at another wedding. Come to think of it, these were both cousin-in-laws of mine. Actually, they were the last two family weddings we went to. We’ve probably been blacklisted.

This photo belongs to Erin Sleezer.

This photo belongs to Erin Sleezer. Where’s Waldo?

This photo also belongs to Erin.

This photo also belongs to Erin. At least Bright was invited to be in this one.

Riding next to strangers on airplanes.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the process, when I fly, Bright lays on the floor in front of me in the bulkhead. News flash: The width of an individual’s space on the plane is far less than the length of Bright. So usually, when Bryan and I fly together, she takes up a little of my space and a little of his, and we’re good. She makes a pretty fantastic ottoman, actually. The last time I flew, though, I was alone and got seated next to a lady who’d just had knee surgery and needed to be able to extend her leg. And she was wearing black yoga pants and said the dog hair didn’t bother her, but she kept picking it, so it obviously did. And her kid wanted to say hi to Bright, and I wanted to let him, but she kept saying no.

In other circumstances, I’ve been seated next to people who LOVE dogs. For 3 or 4 hours at a time. Captive. Miles in the air. With no way out. And they carry photos.


Waiting at the gate for our first flight together. Oh, the adventures we were in for.

Waiting at the gate for our first flight together. Oh, the adventures we were in for.

Being anywhere near people who are afraid of dogs.

Oh for crying out loud, I thought you were dying, or that there was a man with an axe behind me.

When I emerge from a bathroom stall with a dog you weren’t expecting to see, the appropriate response is not to scream, point, and run away. If you’ve got that serious a phobia, for your sake and mine, please, seek professional help.

When we pass each other on the sidewalk, if you’re uncomfortable with the dog, cross the street or something. Stopping in the middle of everything to gawk and make a scene is not going to get us past each other any faster. In fact, you’re blocking the sidewalk, which is preventing you from getting away from me. Please move.

This is the face Bright makes when she's unamused by such antics.

This is the face Bright makes when she’s unamused by such antics.

Walking, since I’m not blind.

Nevermind that I walk like a newborn giraffe. If I’m not seated in a wheelchair, sometimes, people can’t fathom that I’m not either blind or training Bright. It’s one thing to be unaware of the possibilities and to ask questions, but another thing entirely to be totally unable to articulate any kind of normal question. Staring at me with your eyebrows raised, your nose wrinkled, and your eyes crossed is not a form of a question – it’s awkward, and it makes you look like a Klingon. It also makes me think you’re weird, it makes you feel weird, and it makes anyone observing think you’re dumb.

I have very few photos of me standing with Bright, so there. That's me, standing like an idiot.

I have very few photos of me standing with Bright, so, there. That’s me, standing like an idiot.

You Knew Better, Right?

As Service Dog users, we’re quick to point the finger at the general public for making our lives difficult.

Here’s the thing: At least most of them can plead ignorance.

I have news for you if you have a Service Dog. You cannot plead ignorance to etiquette or laws. When you call your dog a Service Dog, you lose that privilege. If you’re not prepared to be held accountable for your dog’s behavior, don’t call him or her a Service Dog, and don’t take advantage of the laws that provide public access rights. Continue reading

There’s a Dog for That

Last week, I went through the legally recognized types of working dogs for people with disabilities in the article, What Constitutes a Service Animal? (Edit: Thank you, Sarah, for saving me from my poorly punctuated fate.) If you’re not familiar with the laws regarding Service Animals, I’d strongly encourage you to read it before continuing, or you might wind up very confused. Continue reading

What Constitutes a Service Animal?

Regarding what constitutes a Service Dog and what rights it has, confusion abounds. There are many vocations for animals, and only some of them involve helping people with disabilities. Let’s just stick to those, for now.

It’s important to understand that the only legally agreed-upon titles are Service Animal, Psychiatric Service Animal, and Emotional Support Animal. I’m only going to talk about those in this article, but I promise another one breaking down all the different types of each will follow. Continue reading

An Introduction to Things to Come

Yeah, get excited.

Over the course of the two years I’ve been partnered with Bright, I’ve noticed a major gap between my expectations of business owner knowledge regarding service dogs and the education that’s available to them. Continue reading

Body = Bad. Food = Delicious. Dog = Good.

I think most people with disabilities feel guilty about taking advantage of accommodations at one point or another. I won’t get into what I think plants that seed now; that’s another whole article. But I really don’t think I’m alone in that.

There are days when I’m getting around so well that I feel guilty about using Disabled Parking even with my chair and dog. There are times when I feel a little bad that I don’t have to pay at the parking meter. I wonder sometimes if I stole a stellar service dog from someone who might have needed her more.  Continue reading

Take Your Dog Everywhere

Aaaah, the Bark Post. My favorite dog blog.

Today’s post absolutely cracked me up.

Fake service dogs are a big thing right now, as you know if you’ve ever laid eyes on this blog before, and my knee-jerk reaction to articles titled things like DIY How to Take Your Dog Everywhere is to get pissed and indignant, and before I’ve even clicked the link, I’ve crafted a nasty email to the author in my mind. I’m in the habit of brandishing the ADA, my sword and shield these days, before having a human conversation. Continue reading

How Do You Do It?

Ask any Puppy Raiser for any organization what question he or she is asked the most; I’d be willing to bet my life and Bright’s that it’s something to the effect of, “How can you raise and love a puppy, then just give it away? I could never give them up!”

There have been about a thousand blog posts written and graduation speeches given that answer The Question, but I always enjoy hearing from individuals about what motivates them to keep doing what they do. Continue reading

Happy International Assistance Dog Week: How Not to Be a Jerk to Working Dogs

I really, really, *really* like this post on Notes From a Dog Walker. I love that she said many things that I’ve been saying for a very long time. The word is getting out, friends!

notes from a dog walker

It’s International Canine Assistance Dog Week! In celebration of all the amazing service dogs out there, here are a few basic etiquette tips. Remember, service dogs are DINOS – they need space to do their jobs! When you encounter a working team, please be responsible for your actions and respectful of their space.

Happy International Assistance Dog  Week

If you encounter a service dog and their handler, please keep these tips in mind:

1. Do not touch the dog.

2. Do not let your child touch the dog.

3. Do not let your dog approach the dog. This includes obeying leash laws and having your dogs under your control at all times.

4. If you want to do #1-3, you must ASK FIRST, then wait for their response. Speak directly to the person, not the dog. Treat the human with dignity, please.

5. Respect the handler’s response. If they say “no”, accept this and…

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International Assistance Dogs Week

Hello, and welcome to International Assistance Dog Week! Did you know there’s a week for almost anything? This week is also World Breastfeeding Week…

For Bright and me, every day is Assistance Dog Day, but it’s great to have a designated time to raise general awareness. There are events happening all over the country that are aimed to help people understand the importance of working dogs.

What about the international part, though? I thought it would be fun to research some organizations outside of the US that provide service dogs to folks in need. Continue reading

Nancie & Rand: Better Than a Cat

When I’m stressed and feel like I need an outlet, I reach for Bright. Hey, Bryan can only take so much. Her non-judging but still animate presence is comforting, so I brush her or stroke her little muzzle and soft ears and let my worries melt away. Apparently, I’m not alone; more and more practitioners in the helping field are using dogs to help their patients feel at ease and open up during sessions. Continue reading

Speaking Italian to My Dog

I’m posting it on the blog so I have to do it: I’m teaching Bright Italian.

No, I do not currently speak Italian, but I’m working on that.

But why, you ask?

Well, for one thing, I’m sick of strangers giving my dog commands. Can I get an amen? Continue reading

Brenda and Buffy: How Can I Help You?

Imagine dropping your phone while sitting on a barstool that your bum happens to be glued to. All together now: “Oh no! Not my phone!” Getting up is not an option. Now imagine that the stool has armrests.

Can’t reach the floor, can ya? Stinks, doesn’t it? It’s a situation that users of power wheelchairs find themselves in every day (except the barstool part).

Add to that equation a smart and capable dog who responds to the drop by looking up at you with big brown eyes that say, “Need help?”

The situation’s starting to smell better. Continue reading