It’s not every day a student can experience petting a furry friend and receiving dog kisses during a reading lesson.
But that’s just what happened Wednesday morning at New Kensington-Arnold School District’s HD Berkey Elementary.
Therapy dogs paid to visit first and second grade students at the school to help provide emotional and academic support.
“The kids come here emotional from issues at home and may not want to talk to adults about it,” Principal Nicole Roberts said. “Petting and hugging a dog may make a big difference.”
The energy in the room quickly shifted as second grade students smiled widely behind their masks when three dogs walked in and sprawled out on the floor for their reading time.
Students were split into rotating groups of three. They read the book “Lost and Found” by Marilee Robin Burton.
Students not reading worked on a lesson provided by their teacher on the iPad for continuous learning throughout the period.
With covid causing a gap between learning and social connections for students, Roberts said, therapy dogs help increase academic performance and decrease stress for students. The dogs visit two to three times throughout the month, visiting different classrooms. They made their first visit in February.
“This will help students feel empowered in the classrooms,” Roberts said.
Second grade teacher Amy Obriot said she was excited when she heard about the dogs visiting. It was the first time her class of her was getting to read to the dogs.
“This is really good for the kids to have something different,” Obriot said. “It’s a very calming atmosphere.”
The program was a big hit among students, who had a doggone good time practicing their reading skills.
Jai’elle Sanford, 7, was surprised by the dogs’ visit. She enjoyed getting to pet one of the dogs while reading to them.
“One of the dogs was sniffing my ears, and it was so fluffy,” she said.
Molly Cramer, 7, was happy to be able to do two of her favorite things.
“I like reading, and I like dogs,” she said.
The school board approved the use of dogs in the classroom during a meeting on March 1. There was no cost for the dogs’ visit.
Roberts said the board also approved a therapy dog she purchased for the school to help provide support throughout the school year. She said the dog is being trained and will make short visits to the school later in the month to get acclimated.
The dogs are part of a program called Therapaws from a group with Westmoreland County Obedience Training Club near Delmont. It’s affiliated with a national group, Alliance of Therapy Dogs, based in Wyoming.
Gloria Flick, the program coordinator, has worked with therapy dogs for 19 years and in schools for eight years. She said therapy dogs help students feel confident to read in the classroom when most may fear being ridiculed reading out loud to the class.
“I have seen students freeze up while reading when a teacher walks by, but as soon as they are gone, the student returns to reading to the dog,” she said.
The program has worked with students in the Plum, Gateway and Franklin Regional school districts.
Roberts said the school is working to have the dogs visit every classroom at least once before the end of the school year.
Tanisha Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tanisha at 412-480-7306, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .