Dogs are all ears at CV Primary
William Shakespeare wrote: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears ...” But at Chartiers Valley Primary School in the Chartiers Valley School District, it’s dogs that are lending their ears, and by doing so they’re helping 750 students in kindergarten through second grade learn to read.
A therapy dog reading program, started at the end of the 2012-2013 school year by school principal Julie Hopp, brings volunteers and their dogs to the school four times each month. All work at and/or volunteer with the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.
“Teachers sign up for a slot. We either talk to the whole class or allow groups or individuals to read to the dogs,” explained Lynn Ready-Aspiotes, who volunteers with her dog, Walter, a pit bull. Walter was adopted through the humane society, and, in addition to schools, also visits the Bridgeville Public Library and Country Meadows Nursing Home.
While participating dogs are of various breeds, Ready-Aspiotes said most are pit bull terriers, and all are certified through Therapy Dogs International.
“This is an excellent program for many reasons, one of which is the fact that the dog doesn’t judge the child’s reading,” Ready-Aspiotes said.
“It’s a great way to meet a dog if you’re afraid of dogs,” said Nancy Wolfe, who brings her dog, Oliver. The 4 1/2-year-old golden retriever also visits college students at the University of Pittsburgh.
A 2010 pilot study by researchers from Tufts University in Boston found that reading out loud to dogs can boost a child’s ability and desire to read. According to Science Daily, the study paired second grade students with a range of reading aptitudes and attitudes toward reading with either dogs or people and asked the students to read aloud to them once a week for 30 minutes. At the end of the five-week program, students who read to the dogs experienced a slight gain in their reading ability and improvement in their attitudes toward reading, as measured on the Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) and Elementary Ready Attitude Survey (ERAS), respectively, while those who read to people experienced a decrease on both measures.
Some children struggle with reading and may read slower than their peers. Others may have low self-esteem. However, when reading to a dog, children often forget about their limitations. Animals are non-judgmental, making them a perfect audience.
At the beginning of the school year, WPHS volunteers held an assembly to introduce the program and their dogs to CV’s kindergarten class.
In addition to Walter and Oliver, Adora, Nola, Roxie and Hurricane also participate in the reading program at Chartiers Valley Primary School.
Adora is a white pit bull/bulldog mix who “loves to sleep,” said Sarah Shively. She adopted the 6-year-old dog from the Humane Society, where she also works. “She comes to work with me sometimes to teach people how awesome shelter and therapy dogs are,” Shively said.
Nola, a 12-year-old pit bull, was adopted by Michele Carso at the age of 6. Carso said she got Nola certified “so people could see how loving pits are.” Nola visits hospitals, libraries and the University of Pittsburgh, where students and the general public are welcome to stop by and visit with the dog. Carso said that many out-of-state students miss their dogs back home and Nola, if even for a brief moment, helps to fill that void.
Hurricane, who was adopted at the age of 4, visits schools, hospitals and nursing homes with Abby Kirkland. “Hurricane loves to come to school and loves food,” said Kirkland, joking with the children that the dog had its eye on their lunchboxes. She also has another therapy dog at home, Charm, that she takes to the University of Pittsburgh.
Roxie, or “Roxie the Doxie” as she is known to the students at CV Primary, visits regularly with her owner, Dawn Zarlingo, the school psychologist. The 5-year-old dachshund was rescued from the shelter after she was found in a dumpster.
While each of the dogs are certified, Shively said, “Each dog has their own thing and it’s up to the owner to know what they can handle and what they’re capable of.” Each owner, she added, also has their preference. “Adora adores kids. She grew up in a home with five kids, so she loves them. It’s not my number one choice – I’d rather go sit with old people.” But, Shively said she sees a major difference in Adora when she is around kids as opposed to older people.
During the assembly, the kindergartners were also taught what to do and what not to do when meeting a dog for the first time. Ready-Aspiotes told the students to always ask the dogs owner for permission before petting their dog and wait for an answer. If the answer is yes, pet the dog gently, and always move slowly and quietly around a dog.
Ready-Aspiotes told the students to never put their face in a dogs face, never bother a dog when it’s eating or sleeping, pull a dogs tail, be loud around a dog, or tease a dog.
In recent years, the pit bull breed has developed a reputation of being unpredictable and dangerous, but nothing could be further from the truth. According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a well-bred, well-socialized and well-trained pit bull is one of the most delightful, intelligent and gentle dogs imaginable. In addition to their work as therapy dogs, many pit bulls have been trained in search-and-rescue, as U.S. customs dogs working in narcotics and explosive detection, and as police dogs.
Dogs definitely bring a special joy to those around them. Tyler Torcaso said he liked petting Oliver’s ears the best. “It felt so soft,” he said. For kindergartner Justin Bonkoski, meeting Oliver made him “happier than Christmas.”
To learn more about Therapy Dogs International, visit www.tdi-dog.org.
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