Q: My son's second-grade teacher wants me to bring our dog Bella to class to "listen" to students read. Bella, a tranquil 8-year-old Labrador retriever, is a trained guide dog whose owner died recently. The teacher says Bella can help some kids read better. The principal has approved, and my son is excited. Is this a crazy idea?
A: No, not at all. The folks at Intermountain Therapy Animals have certified Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D) and their owners throughout the nation for more than a decade. R.E.A.D. dogs are registered therapy animals that volunteer with their owners or handlers as a team. They work in schools, libraries and other settings as reading companions for children. The research results show gains for many young readers.
R.E.A.D teaches the dogs to look at the book while a child is reading it, focus on the reader and tune out classroom distractions. To learn more about the training and guidelines, go to therapyanimals.org/R.E.A.D.html.
You wouldn't want to take a dog like Marley from "Marley & Me" to class, but many schools welcome pets that are certified as "Good Citizens" by organizations such as R.E.A.D. and Pet Partners (petpartners.org) and their local affiliates.
Because Bella is a trained guide dog and comfortable in social settings, she will probably fit right in the classroom and have no problem listening patiently as a child plows his way through "Captain Underpants."
Double-check with your principal to make sure that there are no children with serious allergies whom Bella might encounter. You'll have to provide a certificate from a veterinarian that Bella is in good health and has had required vaccinations. Also, inquire about insurance. (Some training organizations offer it to owners of certified dogs.) Work with the teacher to set a specified time that Bella will be with students, and remain with her during this time.
"I can totally understand why this teacher would want Bella to listen to second-graders," says Kristen Ball, a Connecticut fifth-grade teacher who often takes her Tibetan terrier, Livvy, to class. "The elementary school years are critically important in the lives of young readers. They need lots of practice to become fluent readers, yet many are still nervous when reading aloud to peers and adults.
"Dogs relax kids. They just start reading and don't worry about making a mistake. Plus, reading to a dog is fun! Even my fifth-graders become more animated and confident because they know the dog won't care if they stumble over a word."
Ball said that Livvy helps kids with high energy because they can pet her throughout the day. During one school year in particular, Livvy gave a daily boost to a boy in Ball's class who had a serious medical condition.
Ball has noticed something else dogs can do for kids: help them focus.
"Some students are very distractible, but when Livvy is relaxing at their feet, they focus on their tasks better," she says. "There is something magical about a dog's presence that calms kids and makes them very happy."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)