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Ruff Reader Dogs Bolster Student Confidence

Mollie gently sidles up to Wyoming Public School’s West Elementary third-grader Riley Doggett, who’s sitting on a comfy beanbag cushion. Riley starts to read out loud a biography about Davy Crockett. Before he finishes the first paragraph, Mollie gingerly begins to lick his wrist. The gesture makes Riley break into a wide smile.

“It makes me happy when I can read to her,” the youngster said. “It seems kind of natural to read to her. It feels special.”

When Riley is done reading to Mollie, another student arrives in a classroom dedicated to Ruff Readers to do the same while Mollie’s handler looks on, occasionally helping a student pronounce a word.

Boosting Confidence

TIPS TO HELP KIDS LOVE TO READ

  • Read books at their level.
  • Ensure students are not only reading the words, but comprehending what they’re reading.
  • Designate a comfortable reading spot such as a couch or beanbag.
  • Read an average of 15 minutes a night at home.
  • Encourage students to discuss a book with a friend or at a small book club of two to three children.

SOURCE: West Elementary third-grade teacher Shannon Hendges

Mollie is a 9-year-old cockapoo who has been the sole audience to dozens of students since November through a program of West Michigan Therapy Dogs Inc. (WMTD) called Ruff Readers.

Ruff Readers helps children gain a better grasp of their reading skills and confidence by reading to a sociable, nonjudgmental dog who does not mind if they flub a word or sentence, said West Elementary third-grade teacher Shannon Hendges.

“Mollie is very calming and motherly, so if some of my students are reluctant readers in class it seems natural to them to read out loud to a dog,” she said.

“They don’t worry about making mistakes. Ruff Readers helps them to be more confident in their reading, and practice makes perfect. Students see it as a reward, something they get to do rather than they have to do.”

Ruff Readers also has been found to be helpful to children learning English as a second language and those with autism.

Open to the Public this Summer

West Michigan Therapy Dogs launched Ruff Readers in conjunction with the Grandville branch of the Kent District Library in the summer of 2002, but it has since expanded to 17 of 18 KDL’s branch libraries, said Heidi Nagel, KDL communications manager.

Parents may sign up online through KDL’s website starting in mid-March.

“The challenge for our branches is to fit all the kids in who want to participate,” Nagel said. “It’s so popular we’ve needed to expand it.”

All are Trained, Well Behaved

Some 200 dogs have been trained in WMTD’s pet therapy course specifically for the Ruff Readers program, which includes learning a set of commands so kids can focus on reading aloud. Ruff Reader dogs are not breed specific, but instead include large and small canines such as poodles, German shepherds, boxers, pit bulls, and Malteses, said Terrilynne Lymburner, WMTD director of education and training.

More important than a dog’s breed is its temperament, she said.

“They’ve been socialized to be around other dogs and have been socialized to be around different people,” she said.

Mollie’s handler/owner, Roger Hill, refers to himself as his dog’s chauffeur. He volunteered her with Ruff Readers because he enjoys witnessing the students’ progress in their reading confidence, he said.

“(They) are excited about what they’re doing, and they have improved dramatically. One boy reads to Mollie with two students at one time. He’ll read one page and another partner will read another page, and he helps the other student. That’s going from not wanting to read at all, to helping another classmate.”

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