SPCA program takes trained dogs to schools to listen to young readers

The Post and Courier | Charleston.net | News | Charleston, SC – SPCA program takes trained dogs to schools to listen to young readers

Sure, he can roll over and speak, but has he read ‘War and Peace’?

The Post and Courier
Thursday, December 08, 2005
– Last Updated: 7:00 AM

Emily has a way of making children better readers.

She can’t read, speak or prod those who struggle with multisyllabic words, but the 2-year-old papillon pup can help ease children’s nerves by sitting near them while they read.

Fourth-grader Jakera Fuzz thinks reading can be boring, but her feelings perk up when she reads with Emily.

“When you have a dog there, it’s much more interesting,” said Jakera, an Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School student. “When I first started this, I was reading a little slower. Now, I’m reading much faster.”

Once a week, Jakera and seven others read for 30 minutes with trained therapy dogs and their owners in an effort to boost their reading skills. Stephanie Mathias, Emily’s owner, said she’s seen Emily’s impact on children’s reading skills.

“I think it helps take away their fear or inhibition to read,” she said. “They read better.”

Ann Ellison, education coordinator with the John Ancrum Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said she heard about similar programs elsewhere and created “Woof to Read” for three Charleston County schools, including Mitchell and Angel Oak elementary schools. She hopes to expand the program to a Mount Pleasant elementary school in the spring.

While it seems a new concept in the Lowcountry, it’s not the first of its kind in the country. Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, one of a handful of national animal-therapy groups, started the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program six years ago and estimates that up to 3,000 children have participated. The number of its dog-and-owner reading teams in schools, libraries and other sites totals more than 750 in 45 states, an increase from the less than 100 registered teams in early 2004.

Paula Dalby, national teams coordinator for the program, attributes the growing interest in pairing animals with students to the concept’s effectiveness. Reading out loud to a non-judgmental dog is not as stressful as reading to a class and better than reading to an inanimate object, she said.

“It’s working,” she said. “They feel at ease with the dogs. It’s something about a live animal that can reciprocate that feeling of love.”

Fourth-grader Brandy Holcomb read Tuesday with Emily, who perched on Mathias’ lap. Emily kept quiet, but Mathias piped up to help Brandy with tough words like “habitat” and “gently” from the book “The Magic School Bus.”

Across the room, fourth-grader Kimberly White had finished her reading with Dolly, a 9-year-old Maltese. Before reading with dogs like Dolly, Kimberly said she struggled with reading. She reads more now, every afternoon and night, she said.

“Reading helped me with math, too,” she said.

Kelly Stalcup, a teacher coach at Ashley River, said she hopes to offer the program to more struggling readers.

“The kids love it,” she said.

Contact Diette Courrégé at 937-5546 or dcourrege@postandcourier.com.

Copyright 2005 The Post and Courier

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