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  • Two additional pups help early readers. By Colin

Reading Program Expands

Reading Program Expands

This past school year, the name Brody was well-known to just about everyone at Minter Creek Elementary. The Golden Retriever was present every Wednesday, and kids were always excited to see him. Alongside owner Jeff Essayan, the pair was 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 pilot program was so successful that Brody will have a little more competition for his attention this coming school year. Joining Brody are Rohan and Sasha, who can be found roaming the halls of Evergreen and Harbor Heights elementary.

“The concept of the program is simple, but the transformation seen in the children participating in the program is amazing,” says Communities In Schools of Peninsula Site Coordinator Tricia Endsley. “The students here at Evergreen Elementary that read with Rohan are generally quiet and reserved, but as soon as they see their canine buddy it’s like they become different children. They go over and hug him and snuggle right next to him to read.”

The mission for the pups 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 are currently three therapy teams lending an ear to students in Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula following the launch of the program at Minter Creek Elementary School last spring. Kathy Weymiller, PSD director of Communications & Community Engagement, says the program has been a source of excitement and pride for students and staff across the Peninsula. “We would love to see this program in every school! Everyone seems happier when the dogs are working to help students to learn.” The kids who read with Sasha and Rohan could not agree more.

“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.”

The program was set into motion with collaboration between Communities In Schools of Peninsula and the Peninsula School District. 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 in 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 for 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.

Harbor Heights Elementary School Principal Stephanie Strader is thrilled to have the program at her school. “It’s a unique experience for our kids that connects them to school and helps them develop a lifelong love of reading that they might not get in other ways.”

When the four-legged friends appear, children are eager to meet and greet their favorite weekly visitor. Dogs lavish in the attention and are quick to find their place on their 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. Children believe it is their duty to teach Brody, Rohan and Sasha 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.”

All dogs in the program are certified therapy animals and, along with their owners, go through a rigorous training program through Pet Partners International. Around the district, all are hopeful the program continues to expand.

“I would love to see therapy dogs 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 Cathy Rich, volunteer coordinator and development assistant for Communities In Schools of Peninsula.

For questions about the program, please contact Cathy Rich at 253.884.5733 or to make arrangements.

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