Ridgeview Elementary students read to therapy dogs in new program
December 19, 2009
Trystan Campbell first met Jenny more than a week ago at Ridgeview Elementary School.
In the beginning, they weren't sure of one another.
Jenny, an Australian shepherd mix, was calm and quiet while she lay at Trystan's feet as the fifth-grader quietly read aloud from a book called "Santa Paws," said Jenny's owner and handler, Amy Andrews.
A week later, Jenny came back again.
To Trystan's amusement, Jenny showed him how she could sit, roll over and stand on her hind legs before the two began their second lesson Wednesday morning.
After reading several pages of "Santa Paws," it was time for Trystan to return to his normal class.
As he packed his bag, Jenny put her paws in his lap, unwilling to let him go.
Jenny's visits to the school are part of Yampa Valley Canine Connection's pet partners program, which offers children who struggle with reading the chance to have a trained therapy dog by their side once a week.
Five children were chosen to participate in the first year of the program, which began the first week of December.
Kim Thompson, a literacy paraprofessional at Ridgeview who also trains therapy dogs, said a similar program in Steamboat Springs was helping children make large strides in literacy.
"We feel animals and people interact really well," Thompson said. "You can tell anything to a pet, and they love you no matter what."
Thompson said when they began the program, one child asked her why anyone would want to read to a dog.
After two sessions with the dogs, he changed his mind about the program.
"After a while, he said, 'It gets boring reading to adults all the time,'" she said. "It brings out the confidence in them and helps their self-esteem."
Trystan worked through "Santa Paws" with growing confidence. He stopped to sound out only a few words, like "grocery."
Jenny was in an energetic mood and couldn't keep herself from springing into his lap as he read.
Trystan said both his grandfather and father have dogs, and he told Andrews stories about his family pets as he scratched Jenny's ears.
He said he enjoyed reading to the speckled gray and white dog.
"It makes it a lot easier," Trystan said. "I don't really know why."
Andrews, who works at Canine Unlimited, said the presence of a dog is a soothing replacement for classmates who might tease or ridicule a child for their reading abilities.
Jenny isn't just any dog, however.
She passed about 15 tests to be certified by the Delta Society as a therapy dog.
Therapy dogs have to be able to handle different social distractions, such as people crying or arguing around them.
They are tested for basic obedience and friendliness and, once approved, the same dogs that visit the schools also visit nursing homes and hospitals in Northwest Colorado.
But Andrews said seeing Jenny interact with children was the brightest part of the program.
"I always enjoy this part of my job with the kids," Andrews said. "The dogs really seem to mellow them out. Trystan was excited today, I think. He's really liking it."
She said she was very pleased with the way the second session went, mainly that Trystan and Jenny had interacted so much.
"I know he's quiet, but Jenny brings out his personality," Andrews said. "He's coming out of his shell."