New dog therapy program helps students overcome reading struggles

For a handful of elementary school students, reading can be a challenge.

There may be a wide range of reasons why this is so, but registered handler Jacqueline Kluck and her dog Josephine, who are part of the nationwide group of facilitators, working with CARing Paws, Inc. have partnered with Felty and Wedgeworth elementary schools, and are having breakthrough success using animal therapy to assist struggling readers overcome their challenges.

The Waxahachie Independent School District’s goal of it’s new Reading Recovery Program is to dramatically reduce the number of first grade students who have extreme difficulty with learning to read and write and to reduce the cost of these learners to educational systems. In addition, the Reading Recovery program has proven to be a highly effective, short-term intervention of one-to-one tutoring for low-achieving first-graders. The intervention is most effective when it is available to all students who need it and is used as a supplement to good classroom teaching.

The dogs undergo rigorous training in obedience, and are then tested and certified to work in the CAREing Paws programs. CAREing Paws is a national organization that works closely with Therapy Dogs Incorporated, Pet Partners and Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) to offer training, testing, evaluation and liability insurance.

Dogs and their owners that participate in the R.E.A.D. program are volunteers. They commit to meet with classes and students on a regular basis to help students who may have difficulty reading, or with reading comprehension.

“This year, we reached out to local WISD elementary schools, and Felty and Wedgeworth accepted the offer,” said Kluck. “We’re hoping to have more participation next year, based on the success we’ve had this year.

For some students who are having a difficult time reading, the classroom can often be a very intimidating environment, said Kluck.

“While I’m not an educator, research indicates that positive experiences like this will help lay the foundation for a lifetime of learning, and a higher quality of life,” Kluck said. “So, the children not only learn to enjoy the reading experience, they are doing so with a partner who isn’t judging them.”

Felty Elementary School Reading Recovery teacher Elizabeth Winn said the improvement in the children who work with Josephine is both marked and measurable.

“The impact that Josephine has had on these kids is just amazing,” said Winn. “There was one time in particular where one of my little girl readers was having a difficult time in class. Josephine and Jacqueline were here, and we put the little girl with Josephine. Josephine put her paws on the little girl’s leg and started licking her tears away. Just that short interaction calmed her and she was able to make it through the rest of the day.”

Each student is given one-on-one reading time, and each session is based on the perspective of the therapy dog.

“So as we read to Josephine, I’ll ask the child if they can tell Josephine something about what we’ve just read,” said Kluck. “This establishes a bond between the child and the therapy dog, and while the student knows the dog doesn’t understand, it’s a very relaxing environment to help the child not only improve their reading skills, but to really better their reading comprehension.”

The interaction between the student and the therapy dog is one of trust-building and confidence building.

“Josephine can instinctively tell when something is wrong with a student. She can sense tension or if the child is anxious,” said Kluck. “That’s not something you can train into a therapy dog. Josephine will pull herself closer to the child. Put her paws on the student or curl up closer. All of these are very subtle things, but are done to calm the child and put the student into a more relaxed learning environment.”

With the school year wrapping up, Kluck and Josephine made one last visit to their students at Felty Elementary on Wednesday. Kluck gave each of the students a small book with pictures of Josephine, along with a medal that each proudly wore around their necks.