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Wagging dog tails helps kids tell tales

Steven Friederich | The Vidette Mitzi, a toy poodle, sits in front of a letter written by a Beacon School child to one of the dogs, who helped the student get over reading challenges.Buy Photo
Steven Friederich | The Vidette Mitzi, a toy poodle, sits in front of a letter written by a Beacon School child to one of the dogs, who helped the student get over reading challenges.

Have you ever talked to a dog?

Give them a command and they’ll follow instructions — if they’re trained properly. But, have a conversation with a dog and it just ends up being therapeutic. The dog just sits there, sometimes, tilts its head and listens.

That’s the centerpiece behind a program started this year by the Therapy Dogs of Grays Harbor group, which brings dogs into Beacon Elementary in Montesano to help students who are facing challenges reading out loud.

“They are probably having the same problems I was having in the third grade,” said Skip Best, who brings his German shepherd named Belle into the class. “I had a hard time reading in third grade and actually didn’t do so well and now I’m an avid reader. I read all the time.

“We bring our dogs down and we spend an hour or a little bit more time,” Best adds. “Dogs make no judgment. They’re reading to the dogs. Some of the dogs don’t pay any attention to what’s going on. Others get really interested. The kids really bond with the dogs. It takes the stress off the kids. They’re not having to perform for their teacher who grades them. The students can lay down, sit down or sprawl all over the dogs and the dog will lick them and just listen.”

The program is called Happy Tails, Reading Trails.

Marlene Vahl, who co-founded the program, says that both the dogs and the youth look forward to the program — and they’ve seen so much success that some of the students who were participating this year did so well that they are joining regular reading classes and won’t need the dogs’ help next year.

Cathy Carter, who brings her Cavalier King Charles’ spaniels named Paige and Bocci into the classroom, says that the dogs just end up loving it as much as the kids.

“When we’re going to the school, the dogs jump up and pay attention and start wagging their tails,” Carter said. “They’re so excited. I have no trouble getting them in the car. They enjoy it. When we’re at the school, they just have the best time just hanging out with the kids.”

Carter says most kids have showns significant improvement in their ability to read out loud, especially when they’ve been with the kids for a period of time.

“There’s no judgment,” Carter said. “The dogs don’t tell you that you read the wrong word or pronounced something wrong. They don’t tell you that you’re making things up. They’re just there to listen.”

They’ve had other elementary schools contact them for assistance, and Carter says they need more dogs to help the program.

To participate, dogs must enjoy working with kids and the owners must have owned the dog for at least a year. The dogs need to understand some simple commands — like when to stop licking and to stay or follow the owner. The dog also must remain calm with noise and distractions around, be well-groomed, have had a recent wellness check with proper shots and vaccines and be accepting of strangers and other dogs.

Peggy Gillespie of Montesano said that she found her Burmese mountain dog, Dooley, in Eastern Washington. Dooley was a shelter dog and has slowly been training so that the dog can be part of the program.

“Dooley has an amazing personality and I’d really like to see him be useful,” Gillespie said. “The training is not that hard to do.”

Vahl notes that the program has been so popular that the kids have started writing letters to the dogs.

“Dear Dog,” one letter from a summer school student reads. “I love reading to you guys. My friend loves reading to you, too.”

“To the dogs,” another letter states. “You are cool. I hope you have a good day. You are my friend. Love you.”

And, in return, Vahl says the dogs — or their owners, rather — end up writing letters back to the kids.

“There’s a little mailbox in the classroom and most all of the dogs have written a letter and tell them who they live with and what they like to do when not listening to the kids read,” Carter said. “And the kids get a kick out of it.”

“We take away the stress,” Best adds. “I absolutely hated standing up in front of a class and reading ‘Dick and Jane’ or whatever, but if I had dogs, I would have loved it. The program works.”

Those interested in joining the program can attend regular meetings of the Therapy Dogs of Grays Harbor, which meet the second Wednesday of the month at 6 p.m. in the Montesano library’s downstairs meeting room. Or, call Carter at (360) 249-0802 or email cathy@phonodoc.com.