It had been a particularly frustrating day for Sheridan Hills Elementary social worker Chelsey Hauer when inspiration struck.
A student was in Hauer’s office, laying on the floor, throwing objects and refusing to talk.
"It just seemed like all my usual tricks and strategies that I would use to connect with kids were not working. They were being met with total rejection from this girl," Hauer said as she spoke to the Richfield School Board Jan. 19.
So the social worker began looking at rescue dogs on her computer, "just trying to pass the time, I guess," Hauer said.
It turned out to be the key in getting the child to open up.
"She kind of uncurled from her fetal position," Hauer recounted.
The girl told her how she had just lost her own dog in a tragic accident, "and it was that very same day that I told myself I’m going to make a dog therapy program, and I’m going to do it now."
Hauer connected with an organization called R.E.A.D., which stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs. Sheridan Hills is in its first year partnering with the organization, with two therapy dogs visiting the school for two-hour stints once per week.
One of those is Thulo, a 9-year-old, 130-pound male Great Pyrenees. Thulo partners with fellow 9-year-old male Kermit, a border collie mix.
The pets, who are accompanied by their owners during their visits, can’t teach phonetics of course, but they can help kids learn to better enjoy reading as they read aloud to the animals in a low-pressure environment, Hauer observed.
More than half the students in the reading program have told her they dislike reading, try to avoid it or are scared of it, she reported. That’s where a patient dog can help.
"A dog does not judge your reading," Hauer said. "A dog does not give you a test or
correct you when you make a mistake or a reading error. They just listen."
Therapy dogs are trained to sit calmly and stare at the page as students read. Some, Hauer said, can even turn the pages with their nose.
"The students start to see themselves as a tutor or as a helper for the dog. And the younger kids in the program – they even think that they’re teaching the dogs how to read," Hauer said.
It’s the support beyond the ABCs that helps the 11 students in the program who are "dealing with huge stressors in their life," including social, family and mental health issues, she explained.
Gauging from the students’ reading progress, the quiet support of Thulo and Kermit has paid dividends. Citing the findings of Sheridan Hills’ reading intervention specialist, Hauer noted that students in the dog therapy program have made four months’ worth of progress in the three months the program has been active.
"And so while this is a trial," Superintendent Steve Unowsky said, "we’ll say it obviously is going very well over the course of this year."
Considering the results thus far, Sheridan Hills Principal Jodi Markworth said she would work with the district’s support services department to explore the feasibility of expanding the program in the district. Hauer is advising dog owners interested in volunteering their pet to call her at 612-798-6972.
"If you’re feeling like you have a great dog with some time on your hands, this might be a great way to give something to the community," Richfield School Board Chair Peter Toensing said.
Not all dogs qualify as certified therapy animals, however; they must pass classes on basic obedience and "good citizenship."
Hauer tried to get her own dog, a Great Pyrenees-Beagle mix, into the program, but so far Ethel has failed to qualify, she lamented. But the dog reading program does take all kinds.
"Therapy dogs can be of any breed," Nancy Brooks, a licensed instructor with R.E.A.D., wrote in an email. "The most important factor is if the dog likes people and wants to be with people."
Those dogs might be beneficial beyond Richfield’s elementary schools, posited Jordy Chavez, a student representative on the school board.
"I really hope this could be implemented into the high school," he said. "You know, finals get stressed. Big kids like dogs, too."
Hauer also relayed some comments from the Sheridan Hills students regarding their canine companions.
"I wish I could read with Thulo every day," a fifth-grader said.
Another student wants to take the program to the next level:
"Next year when I am in second grade, can I read to a wolf?"