Dogs Help Children Read at Avalon School

Each Thursday during the school year, six dogs decked out in blue neckerchiefs trot toward Avalon Schools to a reading session with elementary students. The dogs are on a mission to help the students practice their reading skills. After successful pilot visits with a single dog last year, the Library Media Center expanded the effort so that 18 students recently benefited from reading aloud to a friendly dog once a week for six weeks. Volunteers from the Orange County SPCA Pet Assisted Therapy Program journey to Catalina Island with their trained dogs and spend half-hour sessions with individual students. Students are selected by teachers from a pool of third through fifth grade readers who need a little extra encouragement. "The students reap multiple benefits—the encouragement of a non-judgmental canine listener, one-on-one reading practice and a self-esteem boost from having been selected for this novel activity," said library media teacher Donna Sharpe. Sharpe’s collaborator, reading specialist Lindsey Mattingly, said students respond well to the relaxed environment. "Shy students suddenly find that they are able to read aloud and their skills improve with each session," Mattingly said. The sessions also provide Mattingly a chance to assess students’ abilities in an unobtrusive manner. Teachers have noticed unforeseen benefits. Some of the students have never had a chance to make friends with a dog, and some have a bit of fear to overcome. They learn how to behave around dogs and are cautioned about approaching strange dogs on the street. The dog and owner teams also visit classrooms to discuss proper treatment of dogs and the valuable work that dogs do for people. The dog owners volunteer their time. Catalina Express has supported the visits with reduced fares, while local service groups including the Avalon Boosters Club, the Avalon Lions Club and the Avalon Rotary Club have provided funding.