Reading to the dogs helps kids improve

SALEM – Camren Walker read three whole books to Sam, making sure to show him some of Camren’s favorite pictures in each one.

Sam is a dog, a 6-year-old Corgi, a tri-color, Cardigan Corgi without a tail, to be exact. And he seems to enjoy going to East Salem Elementary School to listen to first graders read to him as part of the Reading Buddies program.

East Salem Elementary first grader Keira reads to Sam the Corgi in the school's Reading Buddies program. Sam's owner, Jenny Chapman, listens. Photo by Meg Hibbert

“Look at my shoes!” first-grader Camren read, then showed Sam the colorful drawing of a clown with oversized yellow-and-red footwear in “Boots and Shoes.” The boy made sure to show Sam the pictures of baby chicks and turtles in “Where Things Grow,” too.

“It’s fun because I get to read to him. He’s very patient and very quiet,” said Camren, who added, “That’s one little short dog.”

Camren shows Sam pictures while he reads to the Corgi in the Reading Buddies program. Photo by Meg Hibbert

He also asked Sam’s owner, Jenny Chapman of Bent Mountain if Sam is afraid of spiders, while they were reading “Where Things Grow.”

“You want to know a secret?” Chapman responded. “He eats them.”

Sam definitely enjoys the pats he gets from the children, and treats that Chapman pulls out of the dog’s brown-and-red vest embroidered with the words “Pet Partners” and “Therapy Dog. Please Pet Me.”

Each Thursday during the Reading Buddies program, some of the 17 students in first and second grades who need a little extra time reading and practice for fluency get to read out loud either to Sam or a Golden Retriever named Sallie who comes with her owner, Janelle Love.

The program is a partnership between East Salem and the Saint Francis Service Dog Foundation. Both dogs are certified as pet therapy pooches and have passed tests to show they are good with children and adults.

The students are excited to come into Reading Specialist Janice Simmons’ reading resource room, settle down one at a time in the purple bean bag chair and pull out reading books on their level that Simmons has ready in their book bins.

Therapy Dog Sam listens to Kaelyn read one of her favorite books. Photo by Meg Hibbert

“These are the books I have them read with me,” she said. “Having the dogs come is an incentive for children to read their stories, explained Simmons, who added that dogs are great listeners who do not judge, laugh or criticize, and allow children to proceed at their own pace.

Sam’s owner interacts with the children, too.

“It’s good to have something to do on a rainy day, isn’t it?” said Chapman, who is sitting next to Sarah Tennant in a blue bean bag as Sarah pulls out the “Rainy Day” book. “You’re reading really read. you’ve read this book before, haven’t you?” she asked, then turned to Sam: “Sam, do you like to be read to on a rainy day?”

When Sarah comes to a word she doesn’t know in “Things that Grow,” Chapman encourages her. “OK, word detective. Sound that one out,” and Sarah does.

“Does Sam like carrots?” asked Sarah. “You know, he doesn’t,” his person told her. “He only likes carrots with butter on them.”

Caelyn England, Kaylee Christley and Keira Ritch also took turns reading to Sam that morning the week before Thanksgiving. While one was reading, the others worked at a nearby table with Simmons.

Having the dogs come to the school create excitement, not only for the students who get to read, but to others who see friendly dogs who might not have their own pets at home, or who are hesitant about dogs, Simmons said.

“It’s a way for kids to get to explore. We had a little girl who was terrified of dogs. She loves Sam and Sallie now, and her family is thinking about getting a family dog now,” added Simmons, who lives near Chapman, at the foot of Bent Mountain.

“Anytime you can get a dog in the building, it makes everybody happy,” she said. “It’s dog therapy for us, too,” she added, meaning teachers and staff.

This is the first year for the Reading Buddies program at East Salem. “Jodi Brammer at West Salem started the program,” Simmons explained. The partnership is made possible through a grant written by Saint Francis’ Niki Voudren, Simmons said.

This is also Sam’s first year to listen to children read. He passed his Pet Partner tests with the Delta Society after going through classes, and now also does reading programs at the Bent Mountain library.

“The kids are just terrific,” said Chapman. “We absolutely love coming to East Salem. Sam really does enjoy it. He gets real excited when we get out of the car.”

She added that she got a call from the Bent Mountain Library the other day. “They weren’t calling for me. They were asking if Sam would do a Howl-a-day party on Dec. 13 at the library.”