- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

Ross, as the students call him, embodies a new breed of reading teacher in public schools. He’s great with children, is patient and likes to have his ears rubbed.

He’s a dog.

Every Tuesday at Washington Grove Elementary in Gaithersburg, students who struggle with reading get a private session with Ross, an Irish setter, or with Tucker, a golden retriever.

For about 30 minutes, each child reads to one of the two trained therapy dogs. No teachers or other students are in the room.

The animal’s handler guides the lesson, but even she poses her questions as if the dog is the one who wants answers about the story.

Unusual? Sure, school leaders say, but the students seem inspired.

“They like the nonjudgmental character of the dog,” said Barbara Murgo, the human partner in the therapy team with Ross, whose formal name is Rossini.

“If they make a mistake, the dog isn’t going to correct them,” Miss Murgo said. “The dog is not going to laugh at them. It’s just going to listen and love every word they say.”

The READ teams — Reading Education Assistance Dogs — are redefining teachers’ pets across the country. The dogs and their handlers are being welcomed into schools to help children overcome their fear of mistakes.

For years, besides being companions, dogs have been trained to help the blind, sniff for explosives and provide a soothing calm for hospital patients. Now they have found a niche as listeners.

Feel-good folly?

No way, said Kathy Brake, the principal at Washington Grove.

For schools to raise reading scores, children must improve in pronouncing and comprehending words. So first, she said, some children must learn to relax and enjoy reading.

The students don’t question whether the dogs are listening. They assume it.

When Robin Kirk runs her READ lessons at Chevy Chase Elementary, some of her students ask whether her dog, Scout, has any questions for them.

One child brought in four books and asked Scout to pick the one he wanted. Miss Kirk went with the one Scout put his nose on.

The idea is catching on.

The number of dog-and-owner reading teams in schools, libraries and other sites totals more than 750 in 45 states, according to Intermountain Therapy Animals, the Utah-based nonprofit that created the program.

That’s up from less than 100 registered teams in early 2004.

Yet Kathy Klotz, executive director of the group, acknowledges the idea does not appeal to everyone.

When people don’t want dogs in schools, they cite all kinds of reasons — health, safety, skepticism that an animal could possibly help with academics.

“If somebody doesn’t want us, we don’t try real hard there,” she said. “There are so many places that do want us, and there aren’t enough teams anyway right now.”

At Washington Grove, Miss Brake embraced the idea. It helped that she’s a dog owner.

She found two teachers at her school who were willing to try out the program. They chose four students to receive extra help each week.

One of them is Fernando Arellano, 10. During a recent lesson, he confidently made his way through a book on dinosaurs, stumbling mainly on names that could stump adults, too.

Meanwhile, Ross rested on a blanket, sometimes watching Fernando, sometimes not. When the dog’s attention drifted, Miss Murgo tried to keep him involved, asking, “What do you think, Ross?”

After the half-hour passed, Fernando got to brush and pet Ross, the reward that ends each session.

Miss Murgo said the boy has made huge progress since the start of the school year, when he read so fast he didn’t stop for periods.

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