Book Hounds by Chris Dexter

“Hi, Indy!”  “Can I pet Alice?”  “I read with Chloe.”  “I have Seamus’ bookmark.”

Students are on their way to class.  Staff hurries to and from the office getting ready for the day.

A paraprofessional stops to say hi and pet Indy.  “This is a great way to start the day.  Now I know it will be a good one.”

A teacher stops and tells a story about her own dog.  She walks away with a smile.

It’s a typical school morning, except today is Wednesday, the day the Book Hounds come to school.

The Book Hounds are therapy teams made up of a dog and its owner.  However, they are also registered R.E.A.D. dogs, or Reading Education Assistance Dogs (http://www.therapyanimals.org/R.E.A.D.html).  These teams go through training to become therapy certified.  They can then go to nursing homes, hospitals, and so on to help patients and residents.  After passing written and obedience tests, the teams must then go through more training and testing to become R.E.A.D. certified, which instructs the owners in literacy skills that can be used with students.  All of this is done on a volunteer basis, and the owners cover the costs themselves.  These people are truly amazing individuals.  Not all dogs are cut out to be R.E.A.D. dogs.  They have to have the right temperament and love children.

These dogs love kids.  With tails wagging, the dogs head down the stairs toward the library ready to “work.”  Even though they love what they do, the dogs take their “jobs” seriously.  Once students are greeted by them, they are all business.  Students come and read with a dog for a fifteen minute block of time.  Each dog has only one student at a time.  The dogs come to school for an hour.  Any longer and the owners say that it is too much for the dogs.

As students read aloud to the dogs, wonderful things start happening, especially with those students who struggle with reading.  A person can visibly see the children relax.  They begin reading more calmly and fluently.  Some pet the dog as they read and often forget that any adults are even around.  When their fifteen minutes are almost up, the owner talks about the book with them for a few minutes.  Then each student is given a treat to give to the dog and also a bookmark with the dog’s picture on it.  These bookmarks are cherished around the school.

The Book Hounds program is in its seventh year at my school.  I learned about it the same year that I left the classroom and took over the librarian position.  When I heard about it from a friend who participates in the program with her dog, I knew that I had to be a part of it.  Animals break down barriers and have a calming effect.  I saw this with my own daughter when she was in elementary school and would read to one of our border collies.

The Book Hounds program has also gone beyond impacting only reading.  Students with disabilities thrive with the dogs.  ADHD students are not as fidgety.  Autistic students are less agitated and interact more with others when they are with the dogs.  The dogs seem to be able to “read” the students and know which ones need a little more affection and attention.  One dog has been coming to school since day one and is something special.  He is so aware of students and their emotions.  A former student with cerebral palsy would start squealing as soon as the dogs came into sight.  This dog was the only one that would not be bothered by the noise.  He would go to the student’s wheelchair and put his front paws on the tray so that she could see him better.  The smile that would light up her face was priceless.  Another student, who was dealing with some extremely hard issues, also bonded with this dog.  Every Wednesday morning, the student would meet the dog by the school office.  He would give the dog treats and high fives and then escort the dogs down to the library.  On Wednesdays, the student always had a good day.  When this student moved on to another school and was struggling, this owner took her dog to the student’s new school to surprise him with a visit, which shows how committed these teams are.

To say that this program has been successful is an understatement.  The positive impact that these teams have had on the students, and even the staff, at our school cannot be measured.  However, a person does not always need test scores to see student growth.  Observing the students’ reading skills improving and their confidence growing is enough.

Chris Dexter (@cwdexter) is the librarian and gifted and talented teacher at Radley School (grades 2-5) in East Helena, Montana.  She is in her twenty-second year of teaching and loves her job as librarian and her role in leading children to become life-long readers.  She is married and has a daughter and two border collies, who do their reading at home with their own family.  She loves to read and mountain bike.