For Young Readers, an Audience With a Cold, Wet Nose for Books

Joseph Sanchez and Dereck Lopez, sixth-graders at Baker Middle School in Damascus, read to Amelia, a 4-year-old Lab.
Joseph Sanchez and Dereck Lopez, sixth-graders at Baker Middle School in Damascus, read to Amelia, a 4-year-old Lab. (By Brian Lewis -- The Gazette)
By Titus Ledbetter III
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

A black Labrador retriever named Amelia perked up and looked eagerly toward sixth-grader Joseph Sanchez as he began to read.

With his arm around the dog and petting her from time to time, the John T. Baker Middle School student read aloud from a book about rattlesnakes. Joseph said he has more courage to read aloud after spending the past few months with Amelia.

"I feel that my reading has improved," said the 12-year-old.

In January, Baker Middle School began working with the nonprofit Canine Assistants of Alpharetta, Ga., to help students who need more reading support, joining several other county schools that work with four-legged reading partners.

Canine Assistants, founded in 1991 to provide service dogs to people with special needs, has created reading programs at elementary and middle schools across the country. The dogs are trained to be docile and sit quietly as the students read aloud.

Every Tuesday, reading teacher Ann Pluchino gives seven of her mostly sixth-graders at Baker a traditional lesson for 45 minutes, while the other half reads aloud to Amelia in the media center. The groups switch places for the remaining 45 minutes of the class.

Without a scientific study, Pluchino said, it is difficult to determine whether reading to Amelia has directly improved the students' reading ability. But every student in the class has moved up a reading level since last fall, she said, and they are now reading faster and with more fluency.

There is one undeniable benefit: "I have noticed that they have enjoyed reading aloud more," Pluchino said. "They don't have the apprehensiveness that they had at the beginning of the year."

Last week, the students sat on couches and chairs in the media center and took turns reading to Amelia while they petted her. They sat quietly and listened to each other read. If the students asked for help reading a word, teacher's aide Deborah Volley gave them the answer.

"It is awesome," said Juan Pablo, a sixth-grader. "She doesn't care if you accidentally read a word wrong. Sometimes you read a word wrong and [people] just start laughing at you. She doesn't laugh at you. She stares at you, waiting for you to start reading again."

Baker Principal Louise Worthington called the program a success.

"The parents are very pleased because we are all hoping we are going to have the right avenue for students to increase their reading skills," Worthington said. "The students love having a dog here at the school because it is something they have never had before."

Dani Boyd of Gaithersburg, a lunch aide at Baker whose daughter is in sixth grade, is Amelia's caregiver. She came up with the idea of bringing the Canine Assistants program to Baker after working with Amelia at elementary schools.

The 4-year-old Labrador has been trained to work with humans since she was 17 days old. "She follows commands and wants to please," Boyd said.

Sixth-grader Tiffany Roberts said reading to a dog is "cool and interesting." "Usually, it is hard for me to read," Tiffany said. "Now that I read to her, I can understand more and more."

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