In some schools, the new teacher’s aide is almost universally loved and very friendly. Man’s best friend might be able to do more than neat tricks—dogs may help children read.
According to the Papillion Times, Prairie Queen Elementary School in Oklahoma City recently acquired a new, furry staff member. Lucy, a West Highland terrier, is a reading companion and certified therapy dog who is helping make reading time and library visits a bit more exciting for kindergartners and 1st graders.
The furry friend belongs to retired school librarian Sherry Bergen, who visits Prairie Queen, other local elementary schools, and the local public library to read to younger students with Lucy. “About fix or six years ago, I knew that I wanted to have a therapy dog in the classroom,” Bergen told the Papillion Times.
ABC News reported that these reading buddies “are trained to encourage young readers with a gentle nudge to keep going, or a paw placed on the page to offer support.” These unlikely reading partners—like Lucy—"[have] a very calming effect on both the kids and adults,” Bergen said.
Lucy helps them stay focused while reading, Bergen explained. “When working with individuals, we’ll sit on the floor ... they’ll rub her ears and you can just see the anxiety leaving their faces.” The duo are also courteous of students who may not like, or are afraid of dogs, or have allergies—West Highland terriers are also hypoallergenic.
Reading-to-dog programs are increasingly popular across the nation, according to Edutopia. Founded in 1999—by the non-profit, Intermountain Therapy Animals—Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) is one of the first canine-assisted reading programs working throughout the United States and Canada. The program trains and certifies the furry companions and is available in 24 states.
“Our volunteer therapy teams go into schools, libraries, after-school programs, detention centers, and hospitals where kids are in long-term wards,” READ’s national coordinator Paula Dalby told Edutopia.
Other dogs that are sources of cuddly encouragement include Marshall, a rescued, three-legged Labrador retriever. In November, Education Week featured Marshall. He is the inspiration for an anti-bullying curriculum and has a children’s book and movie based on his life. Marshall has visited schools in about 30 states, teaching students the importance of kindness, acceptance, and perseverance.
Therapy dogs like Lucy and Marshall can also help students who have experienced trauma. At McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, an 8-week-old Catahoula named Betsy began her first day as a therapy dog on Monday, according to local news station KWWL.
Betsy lives with special education teacher Christina Ditch who told KWWL that Betsy is part of the school’s effort to become “trauma-informed"—helping students who have gone through traumatic experiences, like the death of a loved one or parents’ divorce, or have stressors in their home lives, like being surrounded by substance abuse or mental illness.
Older students can benefit, too. In Austell, Ga., high schoolers relieved some test anxiety by taking a break with golden retrievers Hobby and Colber—therapy dogs introduced by Dedra Roman, the youth services librarian at the South Cobb Regional Library, according to AJC News.
Roman told AJC that the public library requested to extend the dogs’ service to high school students from South Cobb High School. "[The students] could read to them or just get some love from the gentle giants,” she said.
According to AJC, the project is one of many that Roman has developed for teen-agers, to encourage them to visit their local library and to help with improving reading and writing skills.
The data to prove the success of therapy dogs may need more research but proponents of the idea say that, anecdotally at least, students may simply feel a boosted confidence. In 2009, Kathy Klotz, the executive director of READ told Education Week that students can benefit from their furry partners’ attentiveness: “the child feels like they get to be the teacher, the storyteller ... They start to speak up in class and volunteer.”
Although there is no confirmed correlation between reading to dogs and improved reading skills, in a series of studies by the University of California, Davis, in 2010, researchers concluded that children who read to therapy dogs exhibited increased reading fluency.
Some schools have embraced the canine-assisted reading programs, collaborating with instructors and trainers—the primary focus being the safety of students.
Rachel McPherson, the head of the Good Dog Foundation in New York is hopeful that more schools will allow therapy dogs to help at-risk children improve their reading skills. McPherson told The Bark, “dogs will continue to help children become better readers for many years to come ... they have great gifts of connection, joy, and healing to share with us, and we with them.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.