Fourth-grader Blake Stump said he normally doesn’t like to read, but makes an exception when he has the right audience.
“I read to my dog sometimes, but I really like reading to my tortoise,” he said. “He falls asleep every time before I finish the book. It is so cute.”
Reading to a special friend is the idea behind the Ruff Readers program, an initiative of West Michigan Therapy Dogs. The dogs and their handlers have for some time made visits to local libraries, but also are reaching into elementary schools.
Reading aloud while cuddling with a furry friend or just being listened to is an encouragement to children, said Sandra Hermann, who pitched the idea to the district.
“We just know that in the non-judgmental environment, children will often read to the dog, whereas in the classroom (some) won’t,” she said. “I love to read and wanted to share my passion with elementary students, and to encourage these children to love reading as well.”
Meet the Reading Buddies
“I don’t really listen, but she does,” said Hermann as she to Nala, her three-legged golden retriever. Turning to a reading buddy, she said, “This helps you learn to read much better. She doesn’t care if you get all the words right, does she?”
Hermann said Nala prefers visiting schools because it is difficult for her to walk from room to room like other therapy dogs that make regular trips to hospitals or homes for the elderly.
The Ruff Readers are planning to visit each of the district’s elementary schools for two-hour blocks on alternating Mondays. Students will be excused from their regular classrooms to have the opportunity to read to a dog for approximately 15 minutes.
When Blake Roberts, a Cedar View fourth-grader, got his turn to read to a dog at school, he felt right at home. “I have a dog named Izzy at my house too,” he said.
Goldendoodle Izzy and her owner, Sue Williams, are also settling in at the three elementary schools as students take turns reading selections from their favorite books.
“I saw a benefit to coming to school with her,” said Williams, who started with the therapy dog program when her parents moved to an assisted-living facility, and then last summer visited children at a summer program in Rockford.
“Dogs are often used to relieve stress, and kids and elderly are our focus,” she said. “If this can encourage children to read, it is worth it.”
A Little Extra Help
Izzy and Nala’s owners are sometimes asked to help with pronounce or understand a word. Sometimes the students come in pairs to read with Nala and Izzy, so help each other.
Fifth-graders James Harroun and Ethan Lewis did just that, but like many of their classmates wanted to talk about the visitors in addition to reading.
“My grandpa has a golden retriever, and he sometimes jumps over the fence to come see me or run away. She (Nala) behaves much better,” said James.
Ethan asked if Nala could run on her three legs. “My grandpa has a dalmation that can run so fast. He always says, ‘She could run fast even with three legs,’ so I guess I know.”
Teachers have been very enthusiastic about the program, Hermann said. “We are working to find more teams that would like to come so the children will get more chances to read with one of us.”
Added Cedar Trails Principal Beth Whaley: “There is so much trauma in the world today. Being able to share a good book with a therapy dog makes everything else seem a little better.”
It certainly seemed so for Donovan Alvarez.
“Reading to the dog was lots of fun,” said the fourth-grader who especially loves reading graphic novels. “I was kind of afraid that I would mess up at first, but it was lots of fun.”