Sit, stay, listen

Service dogs help Watertown High students read aloud with confidence


Raider Times

Lily is a long-haired pure-breed Dachshund that comes to Watertown High School as part of the Reading Dogs program, which helps students read aloud with confidence.

By Julia Perry

Talking to animals always seems easier than talking to people; they listen, but don’t judge.

For many students, reading in front of an audience can be a daunting task, or for some, a very stressful or difficult situation. However, the benevolent presence of animals can help.

At Watertown High School, the Reading Dogs program is helping students read and speak with confidence by improving their public speaking skills.

Laura Rice has been working with her three long-haired, pure-breed Dachshunds — Promise, Lily and Zebedee — since she adopted them in Promiseland, Penn., when Lily (Promise’s mother) was 4 1/2 years old.

Lily is blind, and bred to be albino. Promise, 11, has a handicap herself, and her back legs are in a special wheelchair, allowing her to move by using her front legs, and rolling on the hind end.

It’s not as much about facility of reading, it’s just [about] enthusiasm and excitement.”

— Laura Rice

Since then, she has taken the trio to work in hospitals, where they cheered patients, and were certified as service dogs by an organization called Dog Bones, which focuses on “people training” more than dog training.

Slipping a Cheerio in between the pages of books teaches the dogs to be interested in books, and when each child starts to read, they give the dogs a Cheerio.

“We’ve done a few hundred sessions, so repetition is key,’’ Rice said.

The dogs love to work with the kids, and they have been doing so for 6 years. For their first three years, they went to Franciscan Hospital for Children, and later participated in a group reading program at Watertown Library.

When the kids enter the room to begin the class, they immediately gather around the dogs on the floor, smiling and petting them.

“It’s not as much about facility of reading, it’s just enthusiasm and excitement. It creates a little community,” said Rice. “The kids are comfortable and it’s just fun.”

A number of special education teachers have been amazed. In an atmosphere with dogs, no one emphasizes how well anyone reads. Everyone is glad to participate. At the beginning of one reading session, the kids immediately came into the room, excited, and started socializing with the dogs. The dogs seemed to be familiar with most of the kids, and appeared to love the attention.

Before the reading began, some of the WHS students shared their praises and observations for the program.

“The [goal of the] reading dogs is to get social with the dogs and read poems and stories to help us get through the process, to teach us to make it easier to read,’’ said one student.

During the session, the kids were reading stories and short poems about dogs. As the session continued, kids became more outspoken and happy in the relaxed atmosphere. It was clear that the presence of the dogs was a positive influence on students’ confidence. One student commented, “I like the reading dogs because I always read poems to them, and they listen.”