By Cody Neff
Valley Elementary School has really gone to the dogs. That might be a little backward. A dog really has gone to Valley Elementary School and she’s doing more than getting an education. She’s helping teach kids to love books and reading.
This isn’t some puppet show or the plot of a cartoon. Summerlee is a 7-year-old purebred chocolate Lab who, for the last couple of weeks, has been visiting the school with her owner, Carol Vickers, as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program (READ).
“The children have great discussions about their books,” Vickers said. “We talk and we have the time to talk. I think that's important to talk about what you're reading. It improves language skills.
“Children are motivated to read because we have time to get into a discussion about what we're reading and just sharing a book. There’s nothing better than sharing a book with a child and I think that is a big benefit to let them talk, to talk about their books, and to talk about dogs.”
According to the READ manual for pet owners, the program started in Utah and eventually became a pilot study at an elementary school in Salt Lake City.
The study said kids not only showed rapid increases in reading comprehension and skills by as much as two to four grade levels, but other results as well. Other results included better self-esteem, volunteering to read, doing homework more often, improved hygiene, and strong relationships with their READ animal.
“This is not an evaluative program in any kind of way,” Vickers said. “I am not to be judgmental. That’s the purpose of reading to a dog because a dog doesn’t judge. The program is to motivate, maybe to improve absenteeism, hopefully inspire the kids to read and enjoy books, but as far as any kind of evaluation, that is not part of this program.
“I do share a READ visit report with the teachers. They’re just notes I’ve taken on the child as a reader and things that I have observed and what we have talked about. It’s just a way to keep communication lines open between the teacher and myself.”
Vickers said she found the program after reading an article about a woman taking a dog to school.
“I looked at my husband and said, ‘I want to do that some day,’” she said. “I retired from teaching in 2011 and then it hit me. I want to do that program where kids read to dogs.
“Summerlee is just a great dog. I kept thinking about her, ‘She seems to be reliable, predictable and very controllable.’ She did a lot for me as far as when I was stressed in calming me. We started exercising and I walk her twice a day. I just saw the benefit that she was for me and thought she could benefit other people as well. She’s just a good dog.”
One she had the idea in her head, Vickers set out to teach her girl to read.
“We started out by laying a quilt on the floor at home,” she said. “I have a lot of children’s books that are my own that I used to tutor with. I would get books out and put treats between the pages of the books. I’d do the command ‘Look.’ We would read together.
“I started out with a treat between every page to get her interested. Then I did intermittent reinforcement where we’d read five pages and try to get her to look and then give her a treat. We just phased that out and she just gets a treat sometimes when the kids are finished reading. She doesn’t always follow the command ‘look’ but most of the time she does and I can get her up and paying attention to the kids.”
Vickers and Summerlee met when Summerlee was just a pup in Oak Hill. She was born on Summerlee Road and Vickers said she’d lived on both Summerlee Road and Summerlee Avenue. She said she figured it would be the perfect name.
“Now, she is a therapy dog and we first had to be trained with Pet Partners,” Vickers said. “We had to go through four steps to be a pet partners team. I had to take an online course and pass a test.
“I had to go to the vet and have a complete health screening done on her. The third step is that I drove to Ohio where they evaluate her at a hospital in Ohio. They set up a room just to evaluate future dogs for Pet Partners.”
After those steps were finished, the two had to go through a test together.
“She had to obey all basic commands,” Vickers said. “They brought out people in hospital gowns with walkers and wheelchairs to see how she would react. They threw things and made loud noise to see how she would react. She passed. After that, I had to submit a registration packet with all of that information together and they go over that and review it.
“I had to fill out a questionnaire and answer questions about if she’d ever barked, snarled, or growled at anyone. If so, when? After that we become Pet Partners and you get an ID with your name. The ID is only good for two years. We’ll have to go back to Ohio or wherever I find the closest place. There is no place in West Virginia to be evaluated. I’ll have to take her back and we’ll go through that test again to see if her temperament is still what they expect for a visiting dog.”
That wasn’t the end of the two’s training and testing, though.
“In order to go through the READ program, she had to belong to a therapy organization because my liability insurance is through Pet Partners,” Vickers said. “I couldn’t even consider READ unless I was in some type of therapy organization. Pet Partners isn’t the only one, but I chose them.
“For READ, I had to take another online test and I passed it. Then I had to submit all documentation of my Pet Partners work. Then after they review that, you become READ registered. You have to belong to a therapy animal group in order to belong to READ.”
Once Vickers got the approval for the program from all the right people, she started meeting with kids.
“Right now, in this program, we’re doing kindergarten, first and second grade,” she said. “That’s not to say you can’t do other grades, but the READ philosophy would like for you to target young readers just to keep them motivated and reading.
“The children bring leveled text with them that are their independent reading levels. So the text they are reading to me could be a year or more below their grade level. An independent reading level also allows them to read more fluently and practice is more enjoyable and easy for them.”
Once each child has had 10 visits, he or she will get a book that’s been “pawtographed” by Summerlee to keep. Vickers said she appreciates that these books will be provided by the Fayette County Reading Council.
“I want this to go all year, though,” she said. “I want to meet with these students all year. Then I would like for the teachers and parents to evaluate the program. I have a form that I might send home midyear to see how they think things are going.
“I just want kids to love books. Being a teacher for 35 years, I think you’re always a teacher. After retiring I wanted to stay involved and active in the community. Books, children and dogs make a perfect combination to me. I enjoy reading with kids.”
If everything works out, Summerlee will be moving on to higher education.
“I’ve seen people use this kind of program at the college level,” Vickers said. “They’re taking therapy animals in now to help college kids study for finals.
“I was asked by West Virginia University’s Technology school in Montgomery if I would bring her in December for kids studying for finals. A dog lowers your blood pressure and it calms you. We’ll probably do it if it fits my schedule and doesn’t interrupt this program.”
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