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Working like a dog: Canine visitors help schoolchildren improve reading skills


When first-grader Nicholas Hein came bounding out of his elementary school library recently, he knew he was about to meet up with his best reading buddy, Solomon. 

Dr. Anne Papalia, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire associate professor of special education, and owner and handler of therapy dog Solomon, sat quietly with Nicholas as he read to the dog, offering the child encouragement and praising Solomon for listening intently to the story being read to him.

Nicholas, 7, spends time each week practicing his reading skills with certified therapy dogs at Lakeshore Elementary School in Eau Claire. His sessions with Solomon and the other dogs that visit Lakeshore have helped him improve his reading expression and fluency.

The therapy dog reading program has been met with great enthusiasm, said Deborah Lewis, partnership coordinator for Lakeshore Elementary.

"The children love reading to the dogs," Lewis said. "And the owners and their dogs also love being here and interacting with the students. They have become a family at Lakeshore."

The program at Lakeshore is available to all grade levels at the school; it currently serves students from three first-grade classes and three second-grade classes. Lakeshore hosts a dog a day, with six handlers and seven dogs filling time slots throughout the week. Teachers may recommend a specific student he or she feels would benefit from working with the dogs. About 35 to 40 Lakeshore students read with the dogs weekly.

The results of the program have, in some cases, been significant, said Tricia Helms, first-grade teacher at Lakeshore.

"Students who may feel apprehensive about reading to a person recognize that a dog is nonjudgmental, and, therefore, they feel free to throw caution to the wind and just read," Helms said. "Some students try reading a new genre, others may even try a more difficult book or read with more expression.

"Nicholas is always excited and eager to read with the dogs. It doesn't matter if it is one of our excitable pooches or one of our mellow pups. The dogs give Nicholas extra time to practice reading."

Helms said the program has the potential to reach students who need more support academically, mentally and emotionally.

"Some students may not have family members who are able to listen to them read at home due to circumstances such as work schedules, illiteracy and language differences," Helms said. "Reading with the dogs simulates a quiet, relaxed situation where students can enjoy reading in a comfortable setting. We want students to feel that reading is fun and relaxing.

"Students who have refused to complete work in their classrooms in the past are motivated to finish their work in order to have the opportunity to read with the dogs. Students with emotional disorders are sitting calmly and quietly while mimicking the serenity of the dogs. We can learn a lot from our four-legged friends!"

The therapy dog program was started three years ago by Lakeshore parent Rachel Solberg, who brought her dog Bailey to school to help children become more comfortable with reading. Around that time, Papalia heard about Lakeshore's new reading program and started to recruit volunteers who could bring their therapy dogs to the school to help children with reading. The program has since expanded to Meadowview and Northwoods elementary schools in Eau Claire and will soon be offered at St. Charles Primary School in Chippewa Falls.

"The therapy dog program is one example of how UW-Eau Claire's Teacher Education Program can partner with schools for the benefit of children," said Dr. Carmen Manning, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences at UW-Eau Claire. "We are so excited to be a part of this important initiative."

Although Meadowview started its therapy dog program only recently, students are already benefiting, said Sue Lindstedt, Meadowview partnership coordinator.

"We currently have three therapy dogs that come on a rotating schedule to work with students in kindergarten through second grade," Lindstedt said. "They work one-on-one for about 20 minutes with the same students every week.

"Students are selected for the program based on their need for a little extra time on reading skill development. The students love working with the dogs. They get to pet the dog while reading, and they also like the special attention they get from the dog's owner. Reading improves because the child is practicing the skill of reading, building self-esteem and associating reading with something pleasant."

Papalia, a certified therapy dog evaluator, owns two therapy dogs, Solomon and Moses, both black labs, and brings them to Lakeshore Elementary for reading sessions on a regular basis. She continues to recruit volunteers and dogs for the program in order to serve more children in the area. There currently are approximately 15 dogs and 13 handlers participating in area school reading programs.

To be eligible for the program, dogs must pass an evaluation and be certified through Therapy Dogs International, Papalia said.

"Dogs must have an even temperament, be reliably friendly with people and have basic obedience skills," she said. "They are tested for reaction to distractions, crowds, noises and petting styles. Handlers must be able to handle the dog at all times."

For more information about therapy dog certification and how to participate in the area therapy dog reading program, contact Anne Papalia at 715-836-2112 or papalia@uwec.edu

Photo caption: Lakeshore Elementary first-grader Nicholas Hein practices his reading skills with therapy dog Solomon and Dr. Anne Papalia, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of special education and Solomon's handler.


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