Third-grader Marylin Alvarez Lopez eagerly entered a quiet room at Haydon Elementary School in Manassas recently, where she was greeted by Paula Street and her King Charles spaniel, Kaddie. Marylin sat on the floor, opened her book, placed her hand gently on Kaddie’s head, and began to read to Kaddie.
Three other third graders followed suit. Within seconds, all four were paired with a dog. They sat on the floor and read enthusiastically to the canines.
An observer would not have guessed that these children were what one teacher called “reluctant readers” — students who do not feel comfortable reading aloud in the classroom. Their teachers selected them to read to the dogs and their handlers through the Paws for Reading program offered by Manassas Therapy Dogs, a local nonprofit group affiliated with the national organization Therapy Dogs Inc.
The children are chosen for the program for various reasons, said Diana Hahn, a reading interventionist at Haydon.
“Sometimes it’s because they’re shy,” she said. “Other times it’s because they have something that is impairing them.”
Some children are still learning English, which makes them uncomfortable reading in front of teachers and classmates, Paws for Reading volunteers said.
“The students . . . are struggling, students who just need a little bit of extra help, a little extra time,” said Marty Sperow, a kindergarten teacher at Haydon. “When you’re teaching reading, some kids can be threatened by the fact that the teacher is sitting there. And having a dog there gives the child a way of reading out loud without the struggle of having a teacher watching them and correcting them.”
Street, a former elementary school teacher who is the chairwoman of the Manassas Paws for Reading program, volunteers with her dogs Kaddie and Bogey.
“The dogs are nonjudgmental,” Street said. “And if you have a fifth- or sixth-grader who isn’t reading [at grade level], you can say, ‘Bogey really likes Dr. Seuss.’ It gives them an excuse to read a book that they would otherwise be embarrassed to read.”
Street said that about 30 teams of dogs and their handlers currently participate in the local Paws for Reading program. The dogs receive special training, and must pass several levels of testing before they are certified as reading therapy dogs, she said.
“Not all dogs are as interested in the children as our reading dogs are,” Street said, adding that the dogs have to sit calmly for about 1
“We have some wonderful [dogs] that are mixed breeds,” said Shirley Way, who started the Paws for Reading program in Manassas nine years ago. “Some are 200-pounders and some are 10-pounders.”
Way said she learned about reading therapy dogs from a national organization and worked through Manassas Therapy Dogs to bring the program to Bull Run Regional Library, starting with one dog and one handler.
The group introduced Paws for Reading into the Prince William County school system at Mullen Elementary School about nine years ago, and the program has since expanded to seven schools and two libraries in Prince William County and the City of Manassas, Way said.
The volunteers and their dogs visit the schools weekly, and the children read to the dogs for four weeks. The four-week rotation gives students from every grade level the opportunity to read to the dogs, Hahn said.
Street said that bringing the dogs into the schools also gives her group the opportunity to teach children about dogs.
“We talk a little bit about dog care and how to approach a dog and how to pet a dog, and what to do if a dog is chasing you,” she said. “We do a little bit of animal safety.”
Some children come from cultures that teach children that dogs are dirty or dangerous, Way said. Parents are required to sign permission forms before their children are allowed to read to the dogs.
“I had a student last year who was very fearful of dogs, but the parent had signed them up and said, ‘I want my child to do this,’ ” Sperow said. “So I went with her the first time and sat with her. After that, I didn’t stay. And one day she came in and said, ‘Miss Sperow, I’m not afraid of dogs anymore.’ ”
Way said that two years ago she was paired with a boy at Haydon who had been diagnosed with selective mutism. He was unable to speak in class. But during a Paws for Reading session, she noticed that he was reading to the dog in a voice that was barely audible.
“The reading teacher was in the room, and she said, ‘I could actually hear him read,’ ” Way said. “And at the end of the year, he was beginning to participate in class. The day I got him to high-five my dog, that was my big win.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.