On Wednesdays this school year, students at Minter Creek Elementary will be seeing a four-legged visitor roaming the halls. Brody was the new kid on the block last year but is ready once again to help local kids with their reading skills. The four-year-old golden retriever, alongside owner Jeff Essayan, are the first pet therapy team to participate in the pilot Tutors with Tails reading program, which pairs certified therapy dogs with children learning to read on the Gig Harbor Peninsula. The program was set into motion last year with collaboration between Communities In Schools of Peninsula and the Peninsula School District.
“Recently I saw a wonderful story on the national news about a dog reading program, and it sparked my interest in starting a model program in our neck of the wood,” said Cathy Wood, volunteer coordinator and development assistant at Communities In Schools at Peninsula. The mission for Brody and the Tutors with Tails program is to help students who might be struggling with reading skills or reading aloud, gain the confidence and skills to do so in a fun environment.
“There is so much research revealing the positive benefits of pet therapy,” said Minter Creek Elementary principal, Ty Robuck. “In just a few short weeks, our students have already shown improvement and enjoyment in reading, and we are excited to see their continued literacy growth.”
Using animals for therapy is a growing and accepted form of treatment in many circles. Horse therapy is prescribed often for those who have experienced a violent or troubling event as the calmness of the animal is helpful is soothing one’s emotions. Hospitals bring therapy animals in to visit sick or injured patients as well as family members and caretakers who are under stress. Several prison systems across the country have inmates preparing to be released take care of animals in order that they might remember kindness and responsibility after having to be in survival mode for years in a prison setting.
Animals do not judge humans based upon looks, background or beliefs, and dogs especially offer great devotion to those who would give them attention and treat them well. The same is now being applied to schools across the country as well-trained dogs serve as a calming and fun presence to children.
Developing reading skills is very important for kids this age, however, the social-emotional impact is equally as important. Children in the program are excited to be included in this special program and this, in turn, makes them feel special. The bond that is formed between the dog and the child is the catalyst for acceptance, which spurs a positive learning environment.
When Brody appears, he lights up the room and children are eager to meet and greet their favorite weekly visitor. He lavishes in the attention and is quick to find his place on his own blanket-covered pad as children gather around to read stories.
The dramatic academic and emotional improvement seen in students participating in pet therapy programs such as Tutors with Tails is no coincidence. Canine companions meet kids on their own terms, allowing learning to occur in a non-judgmental atmosphere. At Minter Creek Elementary, children believe it is their duty to teach Brody the story and how to read when in fact the kids are teaching themselves.
“It is so gratifying to see the powerful bond children have with Brody and how their confidence in reading skyrockets” said Jeff. “My favorite part of the day is hearing the kids say, ‘I love you Brody,’ at the end of the reading session.”
Program founder Cathy Rich has seen firsthand these interactions and also heard glowing reviews from local teachers. “In the first 10-week session, third and fourth grade students involved in the program have shown dramatic academic and social-emotional improvement. Not only have their reading and communication skills improved, but there has been an increased sense of confidence, emotional well-being and happiness at school, according to their teachers,” said Rich.
Brody is a certified therapy animal, and along with Jeff, have gone through a rigorous training program through Pet Partners International.
“We are excited about this new program and are grateful to Communities In Schools of Peninsula for their leadership in bringing this creative and exciting opportunity to our kids,” said Rob Manahan, Peninsula School District superintendent.
While Brody is currently the only certified therapy dog, the plan is to expand the program quickly. “We are in the process of recruiting additional certified therapy dog teams and hope to expand the Tutors with Tails reading program to at least three additional schools this year,” said Rich. The hope is to include an additional Key Peninsula school and two elementary schools in the Gig Harbor area.
“I would love to see therapy dog in all of the schools that we serve, including elementary, middle and high school. Everyone loves dogs, and the calming effects that occur when kids get to interact with an animal cannot be measured,” said Rich.
You can visit the Tutors with Tails reading program on Wednesdays from 12:45 to1:45pm. Please contact Cathy Rich at 253.884.5733 or firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements.