It’s not every day that a student gets to experience petting a furry friend and receiving dog kisses during a reading lesson.
But that’s exactly what happened Wednesday morning at HD Berkey Elementary School in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.
Therapy dogs visited first and second graders to help provide emotional and academic support.
“Children come here emotional about issues at home and may not want to tell adults about it,” principal Nicole Roberts said. “Stroking and hugging a dog can make a big difference.”
The energy in the room quickly changed as the second graders were smiling broadly behind their masks when three dogs came in and lay down on the floor to read.
The students were divided into rotating groups of three. They read the book “Lost and Found” by Marilee Robin Burton.
Students not currently reading worked on a lesson provided by their teacher on the iPad for continued learning throughout the period.
With covid causing a gap between learning and social relationships for students, Roberts said therapy dogs help increase academic performance and reduce stress.
The dogs visit two to three times throughout the month, visiting different classrooms. They made their first visit in February.
“It will help students feel empowered in classrooms,” Roberts said.
Amy Obriot, a second-grade teacher, said she was excited when she heard about the dogs’ visit. It was the first time her class had taught dogs to read.
“It’s really good for the kids to have something different,” Obriot said. “It’s a very calming atmosphere.”
The program was a big hit with the students, who had a great time practicing their reading skills.
Seven-year-old Jai’elle Sanford was surprised by the visit from the dogs. She loved being able to pet one of the dogs while reading to them.
“One of the dogs was sniffing my ears, and it was so fluffy,” she said.
Molly Cramer, 7, was happy to be able to do two of her favorite activities.
“I love to read and I love dogs,” she said.
The school board approved the use of dogs in the classroom on March 1. The visit of the dogs is free.
Roberts said the board also approved a therapy dog she purchased for the school to provide support throughout the school year. She said the dog is being trained and will make short visits to school later in the month to acclimatise.
The dogs are part of a program called Therapaws from a group with the Westmoreland County Obedience Training Club near Delmont. He is affiliated with a national group, Alliance of Therapy Dogs, based in Wyoming.
Gloria Flick, the program coordinator, has worked with therapy dogs for 19 years and in schools for eight years. She said therapy dogs help students feel confident reading in class when most may fear being ridiculed reading aloud to the class.
“I’ve seen students freeze while reading when a teacher walks by, but as soon as they’ve left the student goes back to reading to the dog,” she said.
The program has worked with students in Plum, Gateway, and Franklin Regional school districts.
Roberts said the school is working to have the dogs visit every classroom at least once before the end of the school year.