Six-year-old Carol Dimitrijevich has been reading to Hannah, a 10-year-old golden retriever, for a while now — long enough to know the dog’s preferences.
The first-grader at Westside Elementary School said she’s finished three books since the start of the school year, when Hannah, a therapy dog, began making weekly hourlong visits to Carol’s classroom to listen. The books Carol read when it was her turn, she said, were “10 Monsters in the Bed,” “Mud” and “Bump! Thump! Splat!”
“She liked ‘Mud’ best,” Carol said confidently at the school Friday — adding, with a shrug, “Dogs love being dirty.”
Part motivational tool, part security blanket, therapy dogs have been used in a variety of settings for many years, from nursing homes and hospitals to elementary schools, colleges and libraries more recently. The dogs are family pets who go through a little training with their owners to be certified but mainly are just friendly and obedient enough to accept pats and hugs from strangers looking to de-stress during finals or to feel better despite being ill, said Dan Darmstadter, Hannah’s owner/handler.
He estimated Hannah has visited patients at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he is volunteer coordinator of the pet therapy program, about 400 times in the last eight years.
“It’s very hard to go wrong walking into a room with a dog,” Darmstadter said Friday. “People love it. We often hear them say that it’s the best part of their day.”
In reading programs in elementary schools, the dogs’ calming presence can focus attention and make students more motivated to practice reading aloud, teachers said.
“Even my most reluctant readers are willing to read orally to the dog,” said Adrienne Pressman, a fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison, where Sue Weaver has been bringing her therapy dog, Jill, to read with Weaver’s students weekly for more than seven years.
Weaver works with students at all reading levels, Pressman said, meeting with small groups who sit in a circle around the dog on beanbag chairs Weaver provided, each taking a turn reading from the same book and reaching out to pet the dog as they feel comfortable.
“It’s often the ones who are high-risk kids that really bond with the dog,” Pressman said, citing children with special needs, foster children and children who arrive mid-school year as being among those who tend to be most receptive to the dog. “They really work for that time to be able to read to the dog. It really turns around some sad kids.”
Weaver’s dog Jill has become such a steady and beloved presence at Lincoln Elementary that she’s been in class pictures and was given her own library card, Pressman said. Her students write letters to the dog twice a year, including a birthday card, she said, and former students often look for Jill when they return to visit the school.
“They come back to check on Jill and see her, not me,” Pressman said. “There is something really, really comforting and motivating about having that animal in the room.”
Darmstadter started bringing Hannah to Westside Elementary for classroom reading programs last spring, in teacher Chelsea Roggenbauer’s fourth-grade class, and switched to two first-grade classrooms in September taught by Roggenbauer and fellow teacher Megan Nelson.
“The theory behind it is if a child is reading to a dog without an adult correcting them, they’ll be a lot more relaxed,” Darmstadter said. “It’s more of a reward or incentive. They want to do it. Not having the fear of being corrected makes reading more fun for them.”
In Roggenbauer’s class on Friday morning, a stir of surprised excitement sprinkled with a few gasps swept through the room after Hannah, a frequent visitor, was led into the room followed by Daisy, a collie they’d never seen before who was brought by owner/handler Linda Ray.
Ray and Darmstadter set up a space apart from each other on the carpeted floor, sitting down with their dogs beside them. As the students approached in pairs, carrying their books for their turn to read to the dogs for a few minutes, the dog handlers greeted them and asked each child a few questions, trying to make them feel comfortable — especially Ray, as the newcomer.
“She will be very gentle,” Ray reassured one approaching pair, inviting each child to stroke the collie’s delicate face and flowing coat. “She has a long nose, and lots of fur.”
Some still preferred to stick with Hannah, though.
“We get to pet her and when we read, she listens,” said Mason Cryderman, 6, in Roggenbauer’s class Friday.
The Sun Prairie teachers said they valued the dogs’ presence as a two-part teaching tool — boosting their students’ confidence in their reading skills, while motivating them to try harder in more structured lessons throughout the week to win the right to read to the dogs.
“It’s a nice little brain break,” Nelson said about the fun sessions, “and they earned it over the past week.”
“It’s cool to see them open up,” Roggenbauer said. “Some have had poor experiences with dogs before.”
This story was changed to ensure the correct name for Sue Weaver's dog, Jill, in all references.