Therapy dogs are lending their time to help Bond Mill Elementary students bone up on their reading skills.
Now in its 10th year, Laurel-based nonprofit dog training organization Fidos for Freedom’s Dogs Educating and Assisting Readers program has provided struggling third- through fifth-grade students the opportunity to read to therapy dogs.
Officials at the Laurel school said the experience has helped improve reading test scores.
“I really like reading to him,” third-grader Tiami Foster said on April 11 of her reading companion, therapy dog Riley, a golden retriever. “He just lays down and listens to me read.”
Fourth-grader Kai Dagadu said he finds it easier to read to dogs. His listener for the day was Toby, a “labradoodle” or Labrador retriever/poodle mix.
“It’s fun reading to them,” Dagadu said.
Reading specialist and program coordinator Annette Mosier said for 2011-12, the first year she began tracking students, reading scores for third-graders participating in the DEAR program improved 28 percent while reading scores for fourth-graders improved 26 percent, based on their test scores on computer-based benchmark tests used to assess students’ reading and comprehension skills.
“The children are benefitting and I know we will continue to see growth from these students in reading because of this positive and unique reading program,” Mosier said.
Judy Stevens, DEAR volunteer program coordinator for Fidos for Freedom and Toby’s owner, said dogs must complete temperament and obedience testing, and must continue training twice a month to retain their certification.
Small and large dogs of any breed can become service dogs, as long as they can complete the training, Stevens said.
The dog handlers, all volunteers, must undergo two hours of training and observation on two therapy visits, and those going to Bond Mill must pass a background check with the county police, Stevens said.
Mosier said students are selected for the program based on previous year reading scores, as well as those needing extra reading support or learning English as a second language.
Students generally read to the same dog each week, but read to other dogs if ‘their’ dog isn’t available, Mosier said.
She said the program is especially helpful for those students who are uncomfortable reading aloud to other people.
“It’s a non-threatening environment, reading to the dog, because the dog is not going to correct them or judge them,” she said. “The kids really enjoy the interactions with the dogs. It’s also nice to see students who are wary of the dogs become more comfortable with them over time.”
Justin Fitzgerald, in his ninth year as principal of Bond Mill Elementary School, said the program has been a great benefit to the students.
“The program participants are eager to read to their dogs each Thursday. That same excitement has carried over into reading experiences in the classroom and at home,” said Fitzgerald, adding that partnering with community organizations such as Fidos for Freedom helps to strengthen community ties and improve educational outcomes.
Stevens said the program is a great opportunity to give back to the community.
“The dogs are totally relaxed. They love it,” Stevens said. “This has been the best post-retirement job ever.”