Pets. Partners in education?
Dogs are amazing animals. You have probably heard about a dog saving a family by waking them when their house was on fire. You may have seen a service dog let its blind owner know when it was safe to cross the street. You may have read about dogs that can let their diabetic owners know it is time for an insulin shot by tasting the owner's skin. Add something new to this list of canine accomplishments. At Smoketree Elementary, dogs from the local Pet Partners organization are helping kids learn to read.
Pet Partners of Havasu is an organization of therapy dogs and their handlers. Pet Partner dogs are specially trained and tested on their ability to obey commands and maintain their composure in stressful situations. They are not upset by rough handling, noise, or the presence of other dogs. Only exceptional dogs with dedicated owners can qualify to be Pet Partners.
The Pet Partners mission is to, "Share the unconditional love of our pets with the community as alternative therapy. To heal, calm, socialize, motivate and to bring comfort and smiles to the people we visit." Pet Partners frequently comfort the sick, the elderly, and the terminally ill. Now they have a new task. Under the supervision of Smoketree principal Connie Hogard, Pet Partners coordinator Barbara Schoof, and Smoketree academic coach Corey Triassi; Pet Partner dogs and their owners give Smoketree students an attentive, non-judgemental audience as students practice their reading skills by reading aloud.
Started during the 2007-08 school year with just Barbara Schoof and her dog Dutchie, the program has expanded this school year and now includes six dogs (Dutchie, Black Jack, Kenya, Harley, Zoie, and Rowdy) and their owners who regularly spend time with 13 students who need a little extra help developing their reading skills. Their job is not complicated. They listen to the students read aloud. The general idea comes from a national program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ). Their literature says, "Dogs can be great listeners, and their presence creates an inviting and motivating environment: relaxed, comfortable, safe, nonjudgmental, empowering, and FUN!"
The dogs are so popular at Smoketree that time with a Pet Partner is also used as a reward for students who demonstrate good behavior. During a recent rewards day, extra Pet Partner teams (like Gigi and her owner pictured above) were brought in so more students could participate and spend time with multiple dogs. A dozen dog/handler teams spread out in the school's multipurpose room while Who Let the Dogs Out played on the public address system. Students got to spend time with one animal and then rotate on to another.
And, the program is no longer just about reading. A special mailbox has been set up in the school library and nearby posters encourage students to write letters to the Pet Partner dogs. Who reads the letters? We are not telling, but if a student writes a letter, they will receive a response written from the dog's point of view. Posters featuring pictures of the dogs and advice such as, "Dutchie says treat others the way you would like to be treated" or "Black Jack says pay attention to others' needs" are prominent on school walls, encouaging students to practice good citizenship and behavior. One of the dogs even helps out in Physical Education class.
Smoketree physical education teacher Ethan Gietz says Corey Triassi told him early in the year that she and Pet Partners wanted to find a way a dog could work with an entire class. He was happy to give it a try. Now, says Mr. Gietz, dog Kenya and her handler Mrs. Smith visit his class once a week. "Students who display a good example of being physically fit and who treat others with respect," says Gietz, "are given the chance to pet or be with Kenya. This idea has turned into a great success increasing the student's motivation and understanding in Physical Education." Mr. Gietz adds that he is probably the only PE teacher with a dog as a partner. That is a significant word choice. He may say it with a smile, but the fact that he would refer even jokingly to the dog as a partner in delivering his message to students says a lot. (If you check the photo above, you will see there is a small picture of Kenya to the left of the yellow mailbox. Click the "Another picture" link at the bottom of the page for a larger view.)
Pet Partner coordinator Schoof says the organization now has dogs in the school practically every school day. School principal Hogard sums it all up. "In the beginning," she says, "I was not sure about allowing dogs on a school campus, but from the moment Dutchie, our first Pet Partner dog, entered the doors of Smoketree, the staff and students fell in love with him. The Pet Partners and their dogs have done amazing things with our students. They are teaching them character traits, friendly letter writing, the enjoyment of reading, and compassion.”
The basic program defies a lot of educational conventions. It can be explained in one sentence (Kids read to dogs.). It takes little or no money to implement. It has no fancy vocabulary attached. But it works. In fact, students at Smoketree Elementary are learning you can accomplish great things. All you need is a partner.