Recently I went along on a visit to Irish Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colorado, with Eli, Beau, Titus, and Cubby.
Eli, Beau, Titus, and Cubby are not students. Not teachers. Not administrators. They are dogs. Therapy dogs to be exact.* And they visit the school each week as part of Paws for Tales, a volunteer, animal-assisted reading program.
Each dog in the program is either guide dog trained, therapy dog certified, or HABIC certified. During their visits the dogs each snuggle into a separate corner and do their thing, which in the case of therapy dogs basically entails lying down and chilling, while first-graders take turns reading aloud to them.
Reading to a dog? But a dog can’t understand a storybook. A dog won’t correct a mispronounced word. A dog can’t tell if a child is pausing at the end of sentences or raising his voice when there’s an exclamation mark. And that’s exactly the point.
Reading to a dog in such a non-judgmental environment not only improves fluency and comprehension, it also builds confidence in early readers. And the kids I met at Irish certainly exuded that. One by one they marched into the room to take their 5-minute turn. Whether they were reading a picture book in Spanish or a longer chapter book in English, none of the kids seemed nervous or intimidated.
But what I loved best about this day was how each child had a different approach and attitude toward the dog they were reading with. Some children snuggled right up to their canine listener and began reading immediately. Others took a moment to warm up and then sat demurely by the animal’s side with their book. Some kids pet the dogs gently as they flipped pages. Others waited until they finished their story and then gave their dog a bear hug.
Whatever the method, the dogs seemed happy to go along with it. After all these are therapy dogs, and petting, relaxing, and snuggling are all in a day’s work.
Many thanks to Irish Elementary School and the following volunteer human/canine teams for the opportunity to share this story.
- Robin Van Metre and Eli, her 11-year-old standard poodle
- Marty Young and Beau, her 7-year old labrador retriever
- Stacy Overton and Titus, her 8-year-old Spanish mastiff
- Kathy Tripcony and Cubby, a 2-year old golden retriever
* Cubby, the golden retriever, is actually more than a therapy dog. She is a certified comfort dog and part the national organization, LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.