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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
Fax: 540-483-8013

Dogs help improve students' reading skills
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Alaina Kelly, a first-grader, reads to Folly, a dog owned by Lesleigh Cook.

Monday, January 30, 2012

By JOEL TURNER - Staff Writer


Staff Writer

Dogs are helping students at Dudley Elementary School learn to read better.

The elementary students are improving their reading skills in a program they enjoy and look forward to with excitement, said Principal Lisa Bowman.

Each week, half a dozen volunteers bring their specially trained, therapy dogs to the school for the reading sessions with the students.

Dudley Elementary is participating in Delta Dogs, a Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. The national program is dedicated to improving the reading skills of children using certified therapy teams as literacy mentors.

The owner-handlers and their dogs work with individual students during school hours on a one-on-one basis for approximately 15-20 minutes each per week. There is no charge for the program.

"The best thing about Delta Dogs is you don't have to get bored with reading. You get excited," said Faith Gunnell, a Dudley second-grader who participates in the program.

For young children, one of the challenges in learning to read is the embarrassment of making mistakes. But reading to dogs provides a solution -- a non-judgmental, comforting furry friend who listens and takes the pressure off the youngster.

Children have to "practice, practice, practice to be good readers," said Francine Alexander, academic officer at Scholastic, the children's book publisher.

"When you're practicing, if you make a mistake, it can feel risky and uncomfortable," Alexander said. "But if you're practicing with a dog, you don't mind making the mistake."

A study by researchers at the University of California has confirmed that children who read to dogs really do improve their reading skills. The study found that students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program.

Students who didn't read to dogs showed no improvement over the same period.

Bowman and other Dudley school officials, including Allison Weaver, the guidance counselor, said that the Dudley students have shown strong improvement in their reading skills.

Dudley has been participating Delta Dogs program for three years. About 15 students participate in the program. The school gets the permission of parents for their children to participate.

The specially-trained dogs are accompanied by their owners and handlers when they come to the school for the reading sessions.

The owners and dogs undergo several weeks of training to become certified for the program.

Dudley is the only school in the county with the Delta Dogs program, Bowman said. There has never been an incident involving a dog or student during the three years that Dudley has participated in the program.

"It's been so smooth with no incidents," she said.

The reading sessions with the Delta Dogs are held in the quiet corners of the school library, where students and the volunteer dog handlers sit on pillows or soft seats.

Tom Rickard, school librarian, serves as the host for the sessions.

"Our kids have responded really well, and some of them have shown great improvement in their reading -- and in their motivation to read," Rickard said.

The handlers and their dogs spend about an hour at the school during each visit. They have sessions with three students during each hour, with a 20-minute session for each student.

The volunteers who bring their dogs to Dudley include Lesleigh Cook, Chris Collins, Sue Palmer, Judy Stow and Jean Winski.

"Some of the children fall in love with the dogs. That motivates them to want to read," Weaver said.

On a recent day, Dakota Simmons, a student at Dudley Elementary, held and cuddled Susie, a dog owned by Chris Collins.

"I have somebody who listens when I read," said another Dudley student.

Some of the owners of the Delta Dogs also take their dogs to the Westlake branch library, schools in Bedford County, and retirement homes.

Weaver said that Dudley officials hope to expand the program in the future by taking the dogs into the classroom so more students can become involved.

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