Sit. Stay. It’s storytime.

Those who need further evidence that the “man’s best friend” theory is true need only watch all the smiling first- and second-graders as they greet their favorite reading companion and open this week’s story.

Three of the second-grade students in the Waggin’ Hearts reading program take a break from their book to pose with their reading buddy, Sassy. Photos by Matt Wingfield.
Three of the second-grade students in the Waggin’ Hearts reading program take a break from their book to pose with their reading buddy, Sassy. Photos by Matt Wingfield.

These students – and dogs – are part of the Books & Barks Reading Partners program, which is sponsored and run by Waggin’ Hearts Therapy Dogs in Sperryville and is designed to help Title I students improve their reading abilities.

Title I students are those who may require some extra help to assist in meeting state-mandated requirements for reading, writing and math skill levels.

Books & Barks, which is now is its eighth year at Rappahannock County Elementary School, allows the 19 students in the program to focus on honing their reading skills and study for their weekly reading tests in a more relaxing way, says RCES Title I instructional assistant Michele Herbert.

“They love it; I have students who were in the program and are now in eighth or ninth grade who still have their photos with the dogs,” said Herbert.

For 90 minutes every Friday morning, groups of students sit on a blanket with the dogs and their book of the week (which they’ve already spent time covering in class) and read to the canine companions and their owners.

There are usually at least four volunteers and dogs each week, allowing the kids to form reading groups of two to four. The students then read in a round-robin manner – each students reads a full page before passing it along – and answer context questions asked by the human volunteers.

Volunteers Janev Phillips (left) and her therapy dogs Carly (grey) and Patch read with their new first-grade friend.
Volunteers Janev Phillips (left) and her therapy dogs Carly (grey) and Patch read with their new first-grade friend.

The books usually focus on a particular problem the students have learned about in class that week, such as sight words (a word with unusual spelling that doesn’t enable a learning reader to determine what spoken word it represents just by sounding it out) or word families (groups of words with a common feature or pattern).

“Some of them think the dogs read to them at first,” Herbert said with a laugh.

The adults don’t just test the students’ comprehension abilities. They also share some of their own stories and experiences, and keep the students on task to ensure they don’t spend the entire time playing with the dogs.

“It’s important for them – they need to be talked to and listened to in order to learn,” Herbert said.

Many of the handlers, such as David Morrow, who’s been volunteering with Books & Barks since its start, even provide the students stickers or other mementos of their time with the dogs.

Herbert said that students, who are allowed to pick their preferred reading dog, do tend to develop favorites, but are always excited about (and tend to pay more attention to) new dogs. Herbert says the students often make personalized cards for the dogs and always look forward to their Friday sessions.

“It helps them learn to love to start reading,” Herbert said.

The Books & Barks program doesn’t cost the schools anything, and Herbert said the program has been shown to increase most students’ reading levels.

Anyone can be a volunteer for Waggin’ Hearts as long as they’ve registered with Sally Petty, who founded the Waggin’ Hearts facility in Sperryville in 2002. Petty, who started the Books & Barks program in 2003, said she got her start with a therapy dog program in Vermont before moving to Virginia, and wanted to continue it after relocating to Rappahannock County.

“Books & Barks came after [Waggin’ Hearts] because, obviously, the dogs need to be registered and trained before they go anywhere,” Petty said.

Long-time Waggin’ Hearts volunteers David Morrow (right) and therapy dog Buddy read with three second-graders.
Long-time Waggin’ Hearts volunteers David Morrow (right) and therapy dog Buddy read with three second-graders.

Petty said the program has quickly expanded since its inception, and now has around 50 volunteers visiting schools in Madison County, Front Royal, Ruckersville and Marshall.

Becoming a registered therapy dog involves health, safety and temperament testing to ensure the dogs can properly behave themselves and meet Waggin’ Hearts high standards.

“We’ve never had even one problem with the dogs,” said Herbert. “No accidents, no barking – they’re very, very well-trained.”

Many of the same Books & Barks dogs also volunteer at various nursing homes and the Rappahannock County Library, during the library’s “story time” for mostly preschool-aged children.

“It started out with one-on-one sessions, since I was the only one doing it at first,” said Petty. “Now we’re there once a month, on the second Wednesday. We’re always looking for more volunteers.”

For more information on Waggin’ Hearts, Books & Barks and how to become a volunteer, visit wagginhearts-therapydogs.org or contact Petty at 540-987-9632.

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