Mary Ann Jones and her five-year-old Welsh corgi, Smarty Jones, arrive a few minutes ahead of schedule at Honey Brook Elementary Center (HBEC) in preparation of what promises to be a morning filled with happy kids. Through a new program at HBEC, conducted in conjunction with Therapy Dogs International’s (TDI) Tail Waggin’ Tutor Program, Mary Ann and Smarty (and other volunteers as well) are helping HBEC students with their reading skills by letting them read to a therapy dog.
Smarty and Mary Ann’s tutoring begins in a quiet room in the HBEC library with a young girl named Natasha (her true name has been changed in this article to protect her privacy), who soon has Smarty snuggling against her as she reads from the book “The Life Cycle of a Bean”.
Smarty sits quietly, watching Natasha, Mary Ann, and perking up at the occasional passerby who pokes a head in to peep at the popular pooch.
As Natasha reads on to Smarty, Mary Ann helps the girl with pronunciation of the tougher words in the book. As “The Life Cycle of a Bean” comes to a close, and Natasha is informed that she has several minutes left with Smarty, she gleefully seeks out another book to entertain her furry friend. Her choice is quite fitting: Dr. Suess’ “Go Dog Go”.
Michele Murtaugh, a Reading Specialist with HBEC, designs the curriculum and reading programs at the school, and she worked with TDI to bring Tail Waggin’ Tutors in to HBEC. The program launched at HBEC near the end of 2012, and has been met with great approval by students and parents. Murtaugh came across the program when her own daughter participated in a similar TDI program at a library in West Chester.
“I saw it as a nice way to motivate our kids to do more reading,” said Murtaugh. “This program is excellent for kids who may not be encouraged to read while they are at home, or those who have self-esteem issues when it comes to reading. Those who are anxious are able to relax when reading to a therapy dog (because) there is nothing judgmental involved. The student can work on their fluency without feeling nervous. In fact, I sometimes see our kids using a lot of expression in their voices when reading to the therapy dogs.”
The Tail Waggin’ Tutors meet with students at the HBEC for individual, small group, and large group reading sessions as coordinated by Murtaugh. There are typically sessions every week, and Murtaugh keeps in contact with TDI and plans the reading schedule accordingly with HBEC teachers and students. To date she said that have been 40 individual participants and one kindergarten class participating as a whole.
“We have had instances where a child has not been around dogs, and is a bit hesitant at first, and they overcome that feeling because to dogs are so well-behaved and friendly,” said Murtaugh.
The initial Tail Waggin’ Tutors sessions are being held for Title 1 students (those considered ‘educationally deprived’ by the PA Dept. of Education, read more on Title 1 at www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/title_i/7382) and children with developmental disabilities, and will later be offered to the entire student population (in order for a child to participate a parental consent form must be completed and returned to HBEC).
“We have one student here who is a bit older and he really struggles with reading, but he loves dogs and we thought that it would be beneficial for him to try (the program) out,” Murtaugh said. “When he was reading to the dog he was also showing the dog the pictures – and that was something we had not seen a child do before. He said that he felt like the dog was paying attention to him and that made him feel very good about the experience.”
Murtaugh said that eventually all HBEC students who are cleared to participate will eventually get to enjoy the Tail Waggin’ Tutors experience.
“The other kids enjoy seeing a dog in the school, often asking when they see it ‘when is it going to be my turn?’” Murtaugh said. “Currently we are operating on a cycle so that the students can develop a friendship with one of the dogs and keep it going with that dog.”
Students participate in the program during the morning hours, when they are normally participating in some form of reading lesson. For the participating Kindergarteners, a TDI dog is brought into their classroom, and they are incentivized to complete their work in class through the promise that they can read their finished work to the dog.
According to Jones, all TDI dogs are certified by the organization after going through an obedience and behavioral assessment test performed by a TDI staffer, followed by submission of a veterinary health clearance and a photo which are placed on file with TDI. Upon completion of their certification, a dog receives special identification and collars signifying that they are officially part of TDI.
Jones caught the therapy dog volunteer bug eight years ago after an experience revealed to her how powerful the calming presence of a pet can be for a person. In addition to participating as a volunteer at HBEC, she also takes her dogs to other locations for therapy visits, including the Paoli Hospital.
“Ever since the American Heart Association conducted a formal study on the benefits of therapy dogs the practice is becoming much more popular,” Jones said (an abstract of this UCLA/AHA study can be viewed at www.uclahealth.org/workfiles/documents/volunteering/PACArticle.pdf). “I have seen dogs make a huge difference in nursing homes and hospitals… …and for the (HBEC) children I have seen improvements in their reading skills after meeting with them a few times a month.”
Currently she has two Welsh corgis certified with TDI, the aforementioned Smarty Jones, Rose (age 3), and also has another nine-month-old pup preparing for the therapy life (all TDI dogs are required to be at least one year old). She said that when the kids meet with her and Smarty or Rose they are eager to read to the dogs.
One young HBEC student had the following to say about her time with Mary Ann and Smarty, “I like it because these are good books and it is better than reading by yourself. I like (Smarty) because he is quiet except when he walks around and makes the floor noisy.”
Said another student, “(Mary Ann) helps me with reading and pronouncing my words. The kids in class are loud, so I like reading to Smarty because he is quiet and listens. I LOVE dogs and it is nice that I get to pet (Smarty).”
“The dogs make reading really fun for the children,” said Jones. “They take our visits seriously - they arrive promptly and really get into the reading. I think that (these therapy sessions) help the kids realize that they are improving, and I hope that they will always remember these experiences (as proof) that they can get over hurdles in life.”
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