This teacher’s pet is pupils’ best friend

Published: November 24, 2005 | 2812th good news item since 2003

Ross, as the pupils call him, embodies a new breed of reading teacher in public schools. He’s great with kids, patient, and likes to have his ears rubbed.

He’s a dog.

Every Tuesday at Washington Grove Elementary, pupils who struggle with reading get a private session with Ross, an Irish setter, or with Tucker, a golden retriever. [Reading Rescue 1-2-3 : Raise Your Child’s Reading Level 2 Grades with This Easy 3-Step Program]

For about 30 minutes, each child reads to one of the two trained therapy dogs. No teachers or other pupils are in the room. The animal’s handler guides the lesson, but even she poses her questions as if the dog is the one who wants answers about the story.

Unusual? Sure, school leaders say. But the pupils seem inspired.

“They like the nonjudgmental character of the dog,” said Barbara Murgo, the human partner in the therapy team with Ross, whose formal name is Rossini.

“If they make a mistake, the dog isn’t going to correct them,” Murgo said. “The dog is not going to laugh at them. It’s just going to listen and love every word they say.”

The READ teams — Reading Education Assistance Dogs — are redefining teachers’ pets across the country. The dogs and their handlers are welcomed into schools to help children overcome their fear of mistakes. [Where The Trail Grows Faint: A Year In The Life Of A Therapy Dog Team]

For years, besides being companions, dogs have been trained to help the blind, sniff for explosives and provide a calm for hospital patients. Now they’ve found a niche as listeners.

Feel-good folly? No way, said Kathy Brake, principal at Washington Grove. For schools to raise reading scores, children must improve in pronouncing and comprehending words. So first, she said, some kids must learn to relax and enjoy reading.

The children don’t question whether the dogs are listening. They assume it.

When Robin Kirk runs her READ lessons at Chevy Chase Elementary in Maryland, some of her pupils ask if her dog, Scout, has any questions for them. One child brought in four books and asked Scout to pick the one he wanted. Kirk went with the one Scout put his nose on.

The idea is catching on.

The number of dog-and-owner reading teams in schools, libraries and other sites totals more than 750 in 45 states, according to Intermountain Therapy Animals, the Utah-based nonprofit that created the program. That’s up from fewer than 100 registered teams in early 2004.

Published in Animals
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