Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Therapy dogs reassure young readers

Valley programs bring canines, students together

Express Staff Writer

Mary Ann Syms, left, reads with Keesha the therapy dog and 6-year-old Victoria Graham at The Community Library in Ketchum on Saturday. Dogs like Keesha can offer a non-critical ear to young readers in need of a confidence boost. Photo by Willy Cook

In one sense, it's a fairly ordinary sight: Victoria Graham, a proficient 6-year-old reader, sits in an out-of-the-way corner of The Community Library in Ketchum, sharing a book with 10-year-old Keesha.

What makes the scene a bit unusual is that Keesha is a dog. Not only that, but Keesha is one of many dogs who visit the library and local schools for the sole purpose of providing young readers with a patient and non-judgmental listener. Keesha, owned by valley resident Mary Ann Syms, is a certified therapy dog. She and other canine volunteers with Therapy Dogs Inc. are more familiar sights in hospitals and senior centers.

However, several therapy dogs in the valley also spend several hours a week listening to children read aloud at local schools and at The Community Library, as part of the Reading Tails and the Paws to Read programs, which are designed to help young readers build confidence and reading skills.

Reading Tails, run by Linda Peterson of Sun Valley, is an organization that matches therapy dogs and handlers with school reading specialists. At Hemingway Elementary School in Ketchum, Peterson and her therapy dogs, black Labs Raul and Missy, spend about 20 minutes a week with select students.

"We look at students who could use some extra practice in reading, as well as students who could benefit from a little special attention," said Jana Fitzpatrick, the reading specialist at Hemingway Elementary.

Fitzpatrick said Peterson and her dogs work with seven students at the school, though there is a high demand for Peterson's services.

"We'd love to have more, but that's all she has time for," Fitzpatrick said.

Reading Tails is currently in place at seven area schools, which are serviced by five regular volunteers and four substitutes, including Syms and Keesha.

Paws for Reading, the program at The Community Library, is similar to Reading Tails, but a little less structured. Anywhere from one to six therapy dogs and handlers come to read with up to 25 children at The Community Library on Saturday mornings.

The children can choose books from the library or bring some from home, and sign up to read with any available dog, though often children have their particular favorites.

Kerry Bozza, the children's librarian, said the program has been going for two summers and has now started up again for the fall.

"It's a really neat thing," Bozza said. "It's special for the kids to spend time reading with the dogs."

Carolan McAvoy, a teacher at Pioneer Montessori School in Ketchum, said she used the therapy dogs for her combined first-, second- and third-grade class. Once or twice a week, volunteer Judy Blumberg and her golden retriever, Maddy, would come in and spend anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes letting the students read.

"The kids loved it," McAvoy said. "It was most beneficial for the first years, who were just beginning to read."

Both McAvoy and Bozza say it's likely the comfort that children feel while sitting next to a dog that makes them so willing to read.

"It's why we all have pets—it's safe," McAvoy said. "It's a very safe place for [students] to explore what they know with their reading."

Like most therapy dogs, Raul and Missy are extraordinarily friendly. Missy in particular has been known to cuddle up and roll over for a tummy rub just minutes after meeting a new person, while Keesha will nudge up for an ear scratch from almost anyone who approaches her. Fitzpatrick said that the dogs' open, friendly personalities help the children relax and open up.

"The dogs as therapy dogs absorb any anxiety," she said. "They're trained to do that, and it happens naturally."

Fitzpatrick called reading to dogs "risk-free."

"The dogs provide a neutral, non-critical ear," she said, adding that children know that dogs won't judge them even if they make a mistake in pronunciation or miss a word. As a result, they are often more willing to read with a dog than to another person.

"If I had asked them to read with me, they might have shied away from it," McAvoy said of some of her less confident readers. "But they were more than willing to read to the dogs."

Though, presumably, the dogs don't follow the story, they do seem to enjoy the attention—and, of course, the petting—involved with story time. Once in a while, the normally patient dogs will get distracted, which is why they are always accompanied by handlers who help keep them with the students.

During reading time at Woodside Elementary in Hailey last week, both Peterson and Syms sat with the students and their dogs, occasionally answering questions or pointing out words the students had skipped. While reading in front of an adult might make some students shy, Bozza and Fitzpatrick agree that the handlers don't place a lot of pressure on the students—at least not enough to make them nervous.

"Linda's there to provide support, but it's more a matter of the dogs and children being together," Fitzpatrick said.

The children even seem to forget there's another person listening, Bozza said.

"The kids just open up. They don't even notice the handler at all, they are so drawn to the dogs," she said.

This feeling of security can lead to confidence and an improvement in reading skills, say the educators. Fitzpatrick, who is new this year at Hemingway, said she hasn't worked with any of her students long enough to have seen long-term results, but that she "absolutely" sees academic and emotional improvements with the students who read to the dogs.

"It's definitely a good thing," she said.

Bozza said she remembers one little boy who attended the library's program and was so shy that he wouldn't go near the dogs the first week. After a few weeks, she said, he was cuddled right up next to them, reading away.

"Once he started reading, he just relaxed," Bozza said. "He felt confident—and that's big for early readers."

Paws to Read takes place at 11 a.m. each Saturday in the children's library at The Community Library on Spruce Street in Ketchum. For more information on the Reading Tails program, call Linda Peterson at 725-5560.

Katherine Wutz:

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