Therapy dogs used to coax Cowlitz County schoolkids to read
A small collection of dogs is part of a growing effort at a school in Woodland, Cowlitz County, where first-grade teachers use them to help get students to read.
WOODLAND, Cowlitz County — Lunging forward with a stretch, 11-year-old Raika cozies up to the carpet at Woodland Primary School in front of two first-graders. Comfortably sprawled on the floor, the slim, full-bred German shepherd raises her eyes as the young readers begin to tell her a tale.
First-grader Harry Eddington, 6, sidles up close to Raika and pets her head gently between pages. The story he's reading is about mammals.
"Get closer," the dog's handler, Donna Schoonover, tells Harry. Raika, a licensed therapy dog, wants to hang on Harry's every word.
It's the student's second time reading to the gentle dog, and Harry brims with excitement and knowledge. He looks forward to his visits from Raika.
"I know wolves are dogs," he says matter-of-factly, expressing some of the information he's learned from the book he's reading, "and I like them."
Wolflike Raika and a small collection of other dogs are part of a growing effort at Woodland Primary School. First-grade teachers there are using man's best friend as a way to get students to read.
The students are asked to take turns gathering in small groups around the dogs and reading to them from books.
Yanking gently on a dog leash, as Raika rears back to clean her nether regions, Schoonover explains exactly why she's been bringing her dog to the school for the past year.
"Dogs are just very relaxing," she says.
And more than that, they come with a couple of other upsides. They appear to listen intently and, perhaps most important, can't talk back. Educators say they're the perfect reading pals for young kids.
What started as a pilot program in one classroom last year is in the midst of a popularity explosion at the primary school.
Students feel comfortable reading to the dogs, first-grade teacher Andrea Edwards says. Last year, she had the idea of bringing therapy dogs into her classroom through a program called "Tail Waggin' Tutors" after watching a television program about dogs with jobs.
After coaxing administrators into allowing dogs into the classroom, she introduced students to Raika.
Some parents now ask for their kids to be placed in Edwards' classroom because "it's the one with dogs," she says.
Medical professionals have long noted that being around dogs tends to lower blood pressure and anxiety in people. In the classroom, those qualities can help students keep their focus on reading, therapy-dog advocates say.