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Developing Reading Skills with Help from Furry, Four-Legged Friends

As the dogs enter the room, the five students stand like "trees" as the animals investigate the classroom, sniffing and exploring. Rooted in their spot, slightly nervous and terribly excited, the Amherst Middle School students are taught not to distract the dogs.

The dogs roam for a bit, always with their owners at the end of the leash, and within a few minutes of arriving, it is time for the canines and humans to pair up. Some of the students like small dogs and some only do well with larger dogs. Then everyone gets to work for the next 45 minutes. Each student works to read aloud to his or her furry partner, and the dogs, who are all certified therapy dogs, get to work bringing a sense of calm to the students who each have special needs.

Girls pets dog Every Wednesday morning in Room 153 at Amherst Middle School, five animals come to visit through a partnership with the SPCA's Paws for Love program. The pet visitation program, coordinated by the SPCA's Debbi Braun, operates on a volunteer basis, so each week different animals arrive at school. One week it could be a group with a golden retriever, pit bull, collie, labradoodle, and Great Pyrenees. One week it was four dogs and a cat.

"Every week five animals will come to visit and let our students with special needs read to them. The kids are inherently working on communication skills, eye contact and reading fluency all at once," said special education teacher Maria Goldman. "We will have different dogs throughout our program based on volunteer availability. The volunteers are amazing and give up their time to do this for others."

Boy reads to dog When asked what is best about the dog visits, seventh-grader Mackenzie Koch said, "the softness of the dog's ears". She admitted she is always a little nervous and very excited when they arrive.

The dogs come once a week for the 45-minute DEAR time, an acryonym for Drop Everything and Read. Students sit with the animals one-on-one to read out loud. They usually always have a hand on the dog to pet the animal while they are reading. Since the therapy dogs have gone through a certification process to determine that their personality is suited to visitations, they are comfortable with people petting them and enjoy it as much as the kids do.

"These dogs bring a wonderful sense of calm to the room," said Mrs. Goldman. "The kids can read to them and pet them without fear of making mistakes or being corrected. The dogs actually seem to be listening to the students and this gives them confidence to continue to improve."

The week when the cat came along with four dogs, sixth-grader Emily White teamed up with the cat, who sprawled on the table next to Emily while she read. The cat was not bothered by the dogs, and the dogs co-existed with the cat.

"Eye contact is not always easy for some students but they can look into the eyes of a dog without any problem," said Mrs. Goldman. "For a short period of time, it doesn't matter if they can't pronounce a word or it's tough to articulate a sound. The dogs continue to listen and give them their undivided attention."

Dog sits by boy while he reads Eighth-grader George Scandurra is called the dog whisperer, in reference to well-known dog behaviorist Cesar Millan. Mrs. Goldman says George has a way with the animals and he agrees, saying one dog flipped onto his back so George could rub his belly and another always gave his paw to George to hold.

"It's amazing how the dogs seem to instinctively know what the kids need and respond accordingly," said Mrs. Goldman.

Using a tablet, Mrs. Goldman has filmed the students as they interact with their furry friends and then through the Seesaw.me app, parents log into the app and see the video clips of their children interacting with the dogs.

"So many other students and teachers have all expressed the wish to join our reading time," said Mrs. Goldman. "They've asked if we could bring more pets and have them stay longer."

Pictured are Mackenzie Koch, with Scarlett the bassett hound in Bills Jersey; George Scandurra with a yellow lab; Emily White with the kitten; Anthony Falsone with Bear the chocolate Lab and Morgan Mages with Tyson, unknown breed.