By Gail Greenwood Ayres
Veteran teacher Jane Hansen needed a new tool to help her roomful of first-grade students at Purdy Elementary catch on to reading.
“I was looking for another approach to help with fluency. I was trying to think outside of the box. What’s mostly available to help is technology, computers and new apps, which are great, but it didn’t quite seem as personable and there’s no money right now for it anyway,” said Hansen, 42, who has taught at the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor since 1996.
A serendipitous meeting with Shari O’Quinn, owner of Olympic Labradoodles in Gig Harbor, at a Kitsap County 4-H group helped Hansen realize that the new “tool” she was looking for could be fun, friendly, four-legged and furry.
The school district had recently tightened its policy on animals in schools – only fish are allowed as classroom pets – so Hansen was grateful that her principal, Jim Rudsit, was willing to consider a special program. It also helped that Australian Labradoodles are allergy friendly and, despite their voluminous hair, have virtually no shedding. Also, O’Quinn specializes in breeding service and therapy dogs, so her “Doodles” are not only healthy and well trained but also bred to be particularly mellow, friendly and happy.
A pilot program was initiated in October, and now every other Friday, Hansen’s 25 students look forward to O’Quinn bringing in three to five Doodles, ranging from medium-size to huge, for an hour of reading with the students.
On the first day, Hansen recalls, she saw one of her students just showing the pictures of a book to Andy, a large, wooly-haired canine.
“I said, ‘This is reading with the Doodles, and you are just showing the pictures.’ “He said, ‘I know, but I’m not a very good reader,’” Hansen recalled.
“So I said, ‘Look at Andy. Do you think Andy is going to go home and tell the other Doodles that you didn’t know that a silent ‘e’ at the end makes the vowel say its name? Do you think he’s going to sit around with the other Doodles and laugh that you said a word wrong?’”
“No,” the first grader responded.
“That’s right. Andy just wants to hear your voice and have his ears scratched and listen to a little story.”
Since then the struggling reader and his classmates have all enjoyed the dogs’ non-judgmental, non-correcting way of listening to their stories, Hansen said.
She’s also found the canine touch seems to heighten the students’ thoughtfulness and empathy. By the third visit, she observed that the students were picking out books they thought the dogs would enjoy.
“So they were reading all the ‘Biscuit’ and ‘Clifford,’ books,” she said. “One student picked up the book ‘Nubs,’ which is an award-winning story about a Marine who adopts an abused dog from Iraq whose ears have been mutilated. This student wanted to know if it would be a good choice. He wasn’t sure if this book would be too upsetting for the Doodles to hear,” Hansen said.
On a recent Friday, the classroom favorites to read to the dogs included “I’ll Teach my Dog 100 Words” and “If Dogs Ruled the World,” which the dogs did seem to enjoy.
When the Doodles, each on a leash, entered the classroom, everyone – dogs and kids – was well behaved; although it was hard to determine who was more eager, the first graders or the Doodles.
“The Doodles seem drawn to the kids,” said O’Quinn. “They just enjoy hanging out with them. They get a bath and I groom them before they come and they seem to know the routine, so I can tell they look forward to coming to class,” said O’Quinn, who has been training dogs for more than 25 years.
On this day, she brought her own service dog, Joey, as well as Andy and Kira, a brother-sister duo of light-colored, woolly-coated Doodles, and Red Boy, a caramel-colored curly haired puppy who is being trained to go to a special needs child in Hawaii.
While half the class works on their iPads, and half works on a worksheet, Hansen calls out names for students to go in twos to one of three areas to read to a dog. She’s at one station, a parent volunteer or paraprofessional at another and O’Quinn at the third. While one student reads the other can relax and pet the dog.
Sometimes the dogs show more interest than other times. But as student Kennedy McCann reads a book to Andy about veterinarians, the first-grader laughs as the dog suddenly stands up and walks a couple of feet away at the sight of the white coat on the page. When Chloe Corcoran was reading to Kira at one point the young reader was positioned so the dog couldn’t see the picture and Kira gently pawed at the book until she could see better.
Hansen said it’s still too early to determine if reading with the Doodles has made a significant measurable difference in the student’s reading abilities, but it’s already clear that their love of reading has increased.
“They definitely look forward to reading and associate it with something fun. I know they go home and talk about it with their parents and I’ve heard that some of them even go home and read to their own dogs,” she said.