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Can I Hear the Part About the Squirrel Chase Again?

Therapy Dogs Help Students Practice Reading

Hayden Cole opened a book titled “Mr. Putter & Tabby Paint the Porch” and began to read aloud: “She had a bucket of pink paint, a big brush and some rags,” began the East Elementary second-grader.

At first, her listener fidgeted, but settled down and really began to pay attention when, in the book, a squirrel ran across the floor of the freshly painted porch and a dog named Zeke remembered how good he was at chasing them.

That could have been because Hayden’s listener herself was a four-legged squirrel chaser. Lucy the 10-month-old beagle mix was helping Hayden hone her reading skills, and Hayden was helping Lucy master her ability to be a good listener.

Related Story: For Stressed Students, a Pooch Can be CalmingDogs can also help calm down troubled students, Rockford educators say.

Reading to pets

  • Helps children focus better
  • Improves literacy skills
  • Provides non-stressful, non-judgmental environment
  • Increases self-confidence
  • Reduces self-consciousness
  • Encourages the love of reading specifically and learning in general

Source: PAWS for People, a pet therapy organization started by a retired public schools teacher

Lucy — whose mom is elementary intervention specialist Katie Huizenga — is being readied for training to be a reading therapy dog. She is enrolled in an advanced obedience class at Humane Society of West Michigan. After that, Huizenga plans to apply to enroll her with West Michigan Therapy Dogs.

“Lucy is very young right now, and needs more time to develop her skills,” Huizenga said.

So far, Lucy has visited East Elementary the one time, and Central Elementary twice. Plans are for visits to be every other month during the school year.

Sessions with Lucy are scheduled in 15-minute blocks. Some students are chosen to work with Lucy as an incentive to get them reading more, others as a reward for positive behavior. Each student is encouraged to select a book and practice reading it before their appointment with Lucy.

All ears

Huizenga also attends, and Lucy is leashed and lying on a blanket next to the student. She gets chewy rewards as incentive to pay close attention.

Huizenga’s regular work with East and Central students centers around improving reading skills.

“I can tell you the number of students who would like a time slot with her is endless,” she said. “It has made students having to leave class to join my small groups a very positive thing.”


West Michigan Therapy Dogs

Other chances for area children to read to dogs


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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.


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