FEATURE: How To Begin a Reading Therapy Dog Program in Your School

Written by: Ginger Kirchmyer

Have you considered initiating a therapy dog program in your school? It’s not a fix-all, but it does bring some very positive benefits to your library programming, so it’s worth considering. At my school we began our therapy dog program last year by inviting one dog, Molly, to visit one day a week for a few hours. Because of the positive reception of this program, I’m now working to include more dogs.

My introduction into how great it can be to use therapy dogs began by accident. As a classroom teacher who happened to own a Bulldog (the mascot for my, then, high school) and not just any Bulldog, but the littermate of our school’s live mascot who was owned by the principal, I received some special privileges. My principal allowed me to bring Bella to school at least once a week, and sometimes more.

I taught 9th-12th grade Intensive Reading (students with a 1st-4th grade reading level but who were not necessarily labeled as Special Ed) at a high school in Florida. My students had a lot of behavioral and discipline issues to deal with, bad learning habits, transiency & school attendance problems, and just plain disinterest in school. When Bella visited, her impact was immediate and very, very real.

I was able to use Bella as an incentive: complete your work, you get to hold her; stay quiet while I teach, you get to take her for a potty break; make good choices today, you get to have her sit next to you on her leash for her nap; participate in the class discussion, you get to play with her quietly in the corner at an appropriate time….  The kids LOVED her, and it made a huge impact on my classroom management, how the kids got along with one another, and their general mood. They came into class smiling and happy instead of hitting each other and making negative comments; they felt a sense of camaraderie because they felt a collective ownership of Bella; they associated my class with something positive. When I left Florida, I took this valuable memory with me.

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BELLA IN HER STYLISH, SCHOOL-THEMED STROLLER (WITH AN ACADEMIC LETTER DONATED BY THE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT FOR WHEN SHE VISITED THE SCHOOL SPORTING EVENTS)

I moved to Tennessee and decided to get my MLIS. One of the classes required me to create a LibGuide. I was allowed to make the LibGuide on any topic, so I chose “dogs.” For one of the tabs, I remembered back to my time with Bella and decided to include info in my LibGuide on working dogs (which was to include therapy dogs). It was here that I really built my academic knowledge on all the ways in which we use dogs in our society, and the list of ways in which they contribute is impressive.

Dogs in the United States (and other countries) work in hospitals and nursing homes, fight in wars, search and rescue accident victims, sniff out explosives in airports, schools, and with police, return lost items to travelers in airports, assist people who have a variety of medical issues (blindness, epilepsy, autism, Alzheimers, physical handicaps, depression, cancer, and more), help in managing farms, aid in recovery programs in prisons, partner with police and firefighters, and, as I had remembered, work in schools! I was so shocked and elated to discover that this was a legitimate way dogs were being employed in America!

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MY LIBGUIDE HOMEPAGE (CLICK TO VISIT THIS SITE)

It was at this time that I discovered R.E.A.D. (Reading & Education Assistance Dogs). This program trains volunteers to partner with students to practice their reading. Each dog and handler is paired with a student and spends about 15 minutes per student, working no more than 2 hour shifts per dog. In addition, the dogs are insured up to $2 million (at the time of my initial investigation), and all visits are free.

Schools can expect that dogs will be clean, well-mannered, and calm-natured and will always be accompanied by a leashed handler; the dog will have veterinary clearance, and be a non-barker. They could represent any breed though, so you might see a Chihuahua, a Weiner dog, or a Saint Bernard or Rottweiler – it just depends. In order to be a certified, insured reading therapy dog, these canines must first earn their Canine Good Citizen certificate (which is a thorough process to determine that a dog is not skiddish, aggressive, or hyper and can obey some basic commands).

I was curious to see what the research said about this, and here are just a few of the articles I found:

What I read over and over throughout the research basically boiled down to this: students who read regularly to dogs (as opposed to those who don’t) show

  • Reduction in outward signs of stress (heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration)
  • Positive hormonal effects: elevated positive mood (increased oxytocin)
  • Improved reading skills – by 12%-50% as compared to students reading to humans
  • No “summer setback” when they read over to dogs over the summer
  • A higher self-confidence for reading than students who don’t
  • Increased involvement in school activities
  • Decreased absenteeism
  • More compassion toward others
  • More motivation to read (even without a dog)

Even with all this research and so many schools embracing this new practice, still there are some administrators who are hesitant. If this is your situation and you really want to initiate this program at your school, I would suggest starting small. Maybe just ask if a dog could visit on testing dates as a school greeter – only students who are interested would approach, and the dog(s) would stay leashed at all times. This is a non-risky way to dip your toes in the water and let your admin see some benefit.

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MY SCHOOL ALLOWED ME TO BRING MY DOG (ALSO A CERTIFIED THERAPY DOG) TO A STEAM EVENT (BECAUSE THEY WERE BUILDING A DOGGY WHEELCHAIR FOR HIM) , AND THE KIDS LOVED HIM. SEE HOW HAPPY THEIR FACES ARE!

You can also partner with different therapy dog programs (see my list at the end of this post) who might want to work with your counselors in the event of a crisis. It’s not a bad idea to have this relationship lined up and ready to go in the event it’s needed. Of course we don’t want to wait on a crisis in theory, but they do happen, and it could be a practical way to segue into using dogs for reading therapy.

I have learned that it was a good idea to start small anyway. In my current school, by having Molly come the one day for a short time, it has allowed the administration to see her as a benefit, and the staff and students have been able to get to know her and experience that same sense of camaraderie as my class did with Bella. I hope to add more dogs eventually, but as it stands now, Molly works on Fridays. She greets students as they arrive, and then she comes to the library and works 3 class periods with struggling readers.

Molly listens to a 7th grader and an 8th grader as they read to her.

In my opinion, based on my own empirical data and through my research, I believe that a therapy dog can be a huge benefit to any grade level. Remember, my students were from a high school. If you apply the use of the dog right, struggling readers in high school could really love this opportunity. They need a little education on why it benefits them to read out loud to a dog (see my list bulleted above) – talking to them about oral reading fluency and how it benefits them to build those skills can really help them to see the benefit. And privacy would be a big deal to them as well. They’re not going to buy into it if they feel like they’re on display for other people, so giving them a private place to get away and just be with the dog (and the handler) would be important to them.

I genuinely hope you’re able to make this work at your school. It’s my hope that this can become a regular practice at schools all over Tennessee and in America. I’ve seen the benefits first-hand. Please feel free to reach out if you have questions or need help. I can be reached at ginger.kirchmyer@gmail.org.

Molly’s visits include times when she listens to one reader and other moments where she greets large groups.

Here are some great video resources I found on therapy dogs in schools. Use these for your own familiarization with the concept or share with an administrator, counselor, teacher, or librarian you think might be interested.

Here are SOME lists of therapy dog groups you can contact. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will get you started. These people may be able to recommend a group in your area if they don’t currently have volunteers serving your section of the state.

Intermountain Therapy Animals: info@therapyanimals.org

Pet Partners Dog Therapy: https://petpartners.org/

Therapy ARC: therapyarc@gmail.com

Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs: http://www.golden-dogs.org/

Canines for Christ: canines4christ@gmail.com

Love on a Leash: http://www.loveonaleash.org/  

Therapy Dogs International: tdi@gti.net

Reading with Rover: http://www.readingwithrover.org/contact/

The Good Dog Foundation: http://thegooddogfoundation.org/

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GETTING A READING THERAPY DOG INSPIRED ME TO GET MY OWN BULLDOG ACHILLES CERTIFIED TO BE A THERAPY DOG. I HAVE BROUGHT HIM TO THE SCHOOL A FEW TIMES, BUT HE MOSTLY VISITS THE ELDERLY AT ASSISTED LIVING CARE CENTERS SO THAT I CAN GIVE HIM (AND THEM) MY FULL ATTENTION FOR HIS ENTIRE VISIT; HE TIRES EASILY, SO HIS VISITS ARE PRETTY SHORT, BUT THEY LOVE IT AND APPRECIATE HIS SWEET DEMEANOR.
Ginger Kirchmyer is a National Board Certified Teacher and the librarian at DuPont Hadley Middle Prep in Nashville, TN.  She is currently in her 3rd year as the TASLTalks Editor but has served within TASL in a variety of ways since joining. In her MLIS program she did extensive research on reading therapy dogs, and in the 2017-18 school was finally allowed to realize her dream of inviting a reading therapy dog to work with her students at the middle school. She currently owns an English Bulldog named Achilles who has recently become therapy certified. She plans to actively incorporate him in her reading therapy program at Hadley.
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