For the last six months, I’ve had the honor and joy of creating and implementing a reading dog program for our middle school students through the school library media center.  When I first came on board to this school in September of 2022, our principal invited all faculty to submit a grant application for monies available from our school cluster foundation.  While I did a therapy dog visit in the media center at Chatthoochee High (he became a regular fixture and also visits elementary schools!), I had never included a reading dog as part of my programming.  Since I am a devoted dog mama and love reading, creating a reading dog program seemed like a perfect fit for middle school to me!  While most reading dogs work with elementary age students, I can tell you firsthand there is a NEED for reading dogs with middle school kids!  They want to read with dogs, and the therapeutic benefits, especially as students are grappling with anxiety and other issues, are truly a win win and create additional opportunities for the media center to be that safe space and kids to feel a sense of belonging.

Here is the proposal information I submitted through the foundation’s application process:

The purpose of this plan, Dog Days at the Media Center, is to provide students an opportunity to interact with a certified therapy dog and participate in a read aloud with the therapy dog. This program will provide students opportunities to build reading fluency, a greater confidence in themselves as readers, and foster a love of literacy. Research studies show that providing children opportunities to read with a dog in a library setting can also build empathy and support for others while relieving anxiety and stress. Our target audience will be children identified by classroom as teachers as developing readers who may benefit from this type of enrichment and unique reading experience on a regular basis. Students will have opportunities to read and interact with the therapy dog on an individual and small group basis. According to a study conducted by the University of California, Davis, students who participated in one program increased their reading fluency by between 12 and 30 percent. In addition, our program will provide students opportunities to read new high interest books at their point of need (Lexile level) that we will purchase with this grant.

I am requesting $1000 to purchase high interest books that are accessible to a range of readers (lower reading Lexiles, ELL learners). The average cost of a library book in 2022 is now $20, and this money would enable us to purchase close to 100 new titles (including processing and barcodes that we normally get with our regular book purchases).

First Steps

The grant was funded at $500, and I quickly began researching therapy dog programs in metro Atlanta that specifically provided reading dogs.  There are several organizations in metro Atlanta who provide therapy dogs; while there are definitely trained volunteers out there who have experience with their dogs helping children read, the focus is traditionally on elementary school age readers.  One challenge I encountered was that many of the volunteers were already committed to other schools for the academic year (grants were awarded in early October).  Although I began researching groups in late September, schools typically start in late July or early August in Georgia, so the therapy dogs get committed early and often!  If you are thinking about doing this kind of program, do the legwork in the summer so that you can get a jump on your volunteers and your dogs.

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs was the organization that still had volunteers available for our area, and once the school/program was approved and I submitted our paperwork, I received several emails from various volunteers in the organization who were interested.  Some were a little nervous about working with middle school readers, and others wanted to help, but our schedules conflicted with my part-time hours.  Eventually I connected with four volunteers who were a fit for our needs and hours; one unfortunately had to step back due to unexpected health issues, but I was able to connect with the other three.  While we had three visits from two of the volunteers and their sweet dogs, scheduling conflicts prevented more visits from taking place.

I first designed a Google Form to share with ELA teachers to get names of students who might be interested or a good candidate for our program goals.  In addition, I created a permission form for students to take home to their guardians

I initially solicited teacher input on possible candidates for our program; though there was some response, it was a little short of what I anticipated.  Since that approach fell flat and failed to gain much energy, I turned to our school student broadcast program to help promote the reading dog program.  This strategy was key because once the students saw the visuals I had created for the broadcast, interest began picking up, especially with our sixth graders.  Once they started participating, word spread like wildfire and we had more kids wanting to participate January-April.  I can say without a doubt our students are the best ambassadors of the reading dog program as their sharing their experiences and excitement with their peers helped ignite the interest.  In particular, 6th grade teacher Anthony Force encouraged his students and supported us every step of the way, and I am thankful for the extra TLC for our program that he provided as a classroom teacher.

Reading with Reggie:  Format, Routines, and Organic Growth

Permission Forms and Scheduling

Students would come to me and get their permission form although teachers sometimes came and picked some up for students.  I preferred students coming to the media center because it gave me a chance to do a quick “elevator speech” for what to expect and answer questions.  Once the permission form was returned, I would put it in the stack to schedule.  One addition I made after the beginning of the year was to have students include their lunch slot (to avoid scheduling during lunch) and to indicate if they had a reading buddy they wanted to be scheduled with.  While 8th graders definitely preferred alone, our 6th graders were very social and LOVED reading with peers.  7th graders were also open to reading with a peer or small group.  Eventually I sometimes scheduled kids together that may not have requested to read with another to make sure I could accommodate all the requests; I was happily surprised that kids were fine with this and jumped right into reading with a new or unfamiliar person.  I was also impressed by how kind and supportive they were of each other—this cross-pollination of readers was an element I had underestimated.

For each visit, I would plan a week ahead of time and create a schedule of readers.  I would then create hall passes and get to those to the students either through their homeroom teachers or their ELA teachers.  Initially, I made the passes like a small ticket slip, but I changed over to full size passes so that kids wouldn’t lose them and could find them in their bookbags more easily.  I always included the student’s name, the scheduled beginning and ending time, and a gentle reminder to arrive on time with a book!  I also included a picture of Reggie and used color ink to make the pass memorable and visible.  I would also email those homeroom and ELA teachers to give them a heads-up of the students scheduled and requested them to let me know if they saw any scheduling conflicts.  I kept track of attendees and participants by week in a master Word document that really didn’t have any structure other than a bulleted list by week, but it worked for me because it was simple and easy to maintain.

Reading Time Interactions

Our first human-dog team who ended up being the anchor and shining star of our program was Margaret Dennard and her golden retriever Reggie.  Reggie is nearly 100 pounds of sunshine and the sweetest dog who truly enjoys listening to kids read—it is extremely relaxing to him, and of course, he enjoys all the pets!  Joy and delight are the immediate reactions Reggie generated for adults and kids alike!

Initially, I planned 15 minute 1:1 sessions with Reggie; I realized quickly it was hard to stick to that 15 minute limit because kids craved more time and sometimes time just got away from us.   Other times we might have a brief interruption because teachers or other adults would drop by; it was obvious they needed some Reggie time as well!  In March and April I tried to book 20-25 minutes for small groups and 15-20 for individual sessions.  I tried to stick to these time frames, but I also learned that sometimes sessions might blend and overlap with different kids organically and to just roll with it—sometimes these unexpected combinations created great chemistry between kids and Reggie.

We typically would begin with introductions and chatting with students and letting students pet Reggie;  Margaret’s experience shined here because she always knew how to put kids at ease (especially kids who might have some fear of bigger dogs or no experience with dogs) and to how to break the ice with her warmth.  We would sit on the floor or on low soft seating; most kids preferred to sit on the floor and read while petting Reggie.  Students would tell us a little about their book or what they liked about reading, and we’d jump in.  We had a diverse range of reading abilities and genres, and this is one of the elements I loved most because even once students were repeat readers, no two sessions were ever the same!  Margaret was really skilled at helping kids sounds out words they might not know and was so encouraging of our less than confident readers; she also introduced many kids to the strategy of using a bookmark to keep track of their place on the page, a simple but effective tool that we sometimes forget older readers need as well.

While I did have a target group in mind when I wrote the grant, I think it is important to be inclusive of all students and readers of ALL abilities whether they are gifted or struggling.   While our focus was on helping all readers gain confidence in their reading abilities, the therapeutic and emotional benefits of getting to be with a therapy dog were also paramount to me.  Because we had more students wanting to read with a partner or small group, we also got to see the power of reading with others.  Even when kids ended up reading with unfamiliar students–sometimes planned, sometimes it just evolved that way when time slots might overlap or we had early/late arrivals, the positive energy that was generated by the communal reading was very powerful.  Even if only one or two kids read and a third one simply listened, there was value in that as well.  We never forced anyone to read aloud who wasn’t ready, but we always provided gentle encouragement.  It was also so rewarding to see kids gain confidence in their reading skills and to see the pride in their faces as they read to us and Reggie!

Genres of Reading Dog Read Alouds

Some students always brought a current read; others sometimes would pick something off the shelf upon arrival or ask for a recommendation.  Others wanted to read aloud something they had previously loved and read.  We had a group of boys from Mr. Force who were really into poetry and who brought poems and then asked for my assistance in choosing a poem book on their second visit!

We also had kids read graphic novels!  We had two or three students who were really skilled at reading a graphic novel and who would have fellow students hanging over their shoulders and on every word read aloud.  Others were so adept at pausing and showing the illustrations and pictures to Reggie—it was so heartwarming!  Other students brought upper elementary chapter books, read in pairs or small groups of three; they were truly engaged in both the reading of the book as well as Reggie—we were so proud of them!   I think it is important to let kids choose what they want to read whatever the genre or reading level may be—it is their time and a chance to revisit a genre or book they love, experiment with something new and read it cold, or to challenge themselves with a book they might not normally try.

At first, many kids were shy about reading aloud, but once they realized we were not there to judge and instead focused on support and enjoyment, they warmed up and gained confidence reading aloud.  Those who were already enthusiastic about reading aloud were terrific role models for their peers as well as cheerleaders!  With some of our shy 8th graders, I would try to encourage them by reading aloud with them.  However, this modeling was not needed with 6th and 7th graders.

Additional Promotion, Now and the Future

Once we converted our library software over to AccessIt from Follett Destiny at the beginning of the year, I began using the student facing web app to embed photos and slideshows of the reading dog experiences.   We usually have ten lookup stations available for students here at any given time, so students can easily see the slideshow and photos when they come to look up a book or even walk past the stations.  As I shared earlier, getting slides with photos (all designed with Canva) on the morning broadcast news and scrolling announcements on monitors in the building was also a game-changer!  As you already know, visuals are super important with kids.  Another thing I started doing in March was creating custom bookmarks for our readers.  I initially used the Photo Scissors app to do my cut outs (effective but it does cost money per cut), but I then realized I could do the same thing for free using Canva for Education with the background remover in the photo editor.  I used Canva for all designs and then printed them on our color printer and laminated them; these are very popular with the kids and add a personal touch!  Other ideas for promotion in the future:

  • Stickers and other similar items (i.e. in the spirit of the Geek the Library campaign from 2009)
  • Teachers’ Pets Program:  though teachers might not want to have a read aloud with your dogs, they DEFINITELY want hugs and pets with the dogs!  Reggie was popular from the moment he set foot inside the building because he radiates joy and is like 100 pounds of sunshine!  We definitely had our regular staff who popped in as soon as they knew he was in the building!  Teachers are so stressed these days, and this is a simple and valuable way to build community with your faculty.
  • All therapy dogs should have their yearbook photo made and a school ID—I know they have done this for Hudson at Chatthoochee High, and if I were returning in a part time or full time capacity, I would definitely do this!
  • Family Night:  if your school hosts a literacy night, schedule your volunteers and dog to come do intergenerational reading time!  What a fun way to bring families and readers of all ages together!
  • Classroom Visits:  we did a few impromptu visits, but these were limited since I wanted the focus to be on reading time in the library.  However, if I were here full time and were fully staffed, I would do some special visit for class book club time or with teachers who wanted to collaborate for a specific class that worked for the volunteer’s time/availability.
  • Promote via your library’s social media presence-–TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, or whatever you use.

Next Steps

My time is ending in a few weeks as my job was only for this academic year, and I am only allowed to work a 49% hour week under the rules of state retirement system.  I am so sad I won’t get to do this anymore as our last visit was April 20 since testing season started this week, and if you’ve taught middle school, you know the last few weeks are jam packed with special events and other end of year happenings.  I am thankful for our other two volunteers even though we were only able to do three visits—-the fact people are willing to come and share their time and dogs is a reminder of the good in humans.

I will be leaving Margaret’s contact information with the new media specialist who is coming in for next year and hope that she will pick up where we’ve left off.  If I were returning and continuing the program, I would love to “loop up” with the 6th and 7th readers while targeting the incoming 6th grade readers.  Knowing there is such a demand for reading dogs and therapy dogs in this area, I would also be proactive in recruiting additional dogs and their humans through all of the local therapy dog programs because I think engaging and committing early is vital.  If you are in metro Atlanta, here are some of the groups who work with schools:

The Stories of Their Lives and Why Reading Dogs Matter

Reggie with his custom image created by Sharkadoodle

As educators, we experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. I have seen my share of both across four school districts in 30 years (or I guess I should say 31 even though this year has been part-time). The experience of starting and implementing the reading dog program with middle school kids this school year has without a doubt been one of the most special and unique chapters of my story as an educator; none of this would be possible without the incredible Margaret Dennard and Reggie. Margaret is a natural coach and teacher; she has generously given her time, empathy, and HEART to our students with her caring ear and gentle encouragement.  I am humbled by all the hours she volunteered for us with Reggie at no charge, and I am even more touched by how invested she was with our students and my vision for what the reading dog program could be for kids.

Reggie has let our kids love him, and in return he has boosted their confidence, absorbed and softened their pain and anxiety, and radiated joy. He has listened to their stories—-not just the ones they have read, but their stories of who they are—their successes, their struggles, their hopes, and their losses as well as the silent stories between the lines that perhaps Margaret and I could sense, but that we could not fully understand or as intuitively as Reggie did. Not all dogs (or their humans) have this gift or heart for reading and young people, but Reggie definitely does as well as Margaret—that combo make them special and unique, and I don’t know how we ever got so lucky for the universe to bring us all together.

We have experienced so many special moments with these kids, and on our final day for this school year, was no different. We heard stories about gun violence, drama queen girls, fantasy and adventure, and characters with anxiety. We had students read us poems, graphic novels, and a book from a Kindle. Some did not read aloud, but enjoyed listening to their peers as they petted Reggie—-sometimes peers they know and sometimes brand new peers. One student read her own story! Our 6th and 7th graders in particular have shown character and courage this entire semester through these kinds of experiences, and there are no words to articulate the magic in seeing that sense of community. Kids open their hearts and give us a peek into their lives charming us with their wit and breaking our hearts with their struggles.

On our final visit in late April, we had a group of sixth grade boys come for their reading time; on their previous visit, they brought poems. Today, one brought an informational graphic novel, but the other two didn’t have a book of their own they wanted to read. These two were also reluctant to read aloud the last time though one did and showed confidence. Today he asked me to help him find some poem books so he could read some new poems. I grabbed a few, and he decided he wanted to go with Robert Frost, a choice I was not expecting him to go with, but go he did! He told me he wanted to read a LONGER poem, so he chose one and read it cold like a champ! This encouraged his buddy to read some, and he delighted us by reading three Frost poems as well! My heart was overflowing with joy! Then our new Frost fanboy wanted to read another Frost poem; then he wanted to check out the book and asked me if the public library “sold” reading dogs. 😍 I told him they didn’t sell them, but I was sure they would have some this summer that he could read with, and I would get some info for him. I then walked them back to class and made it a point to brag on them to their teacher and peers; the class erupted in applause.

Our new Frost fan is a young man who has dealt with a lot of challenges in his short life, and for him to be the literary star was truly something special and the most pleasant surprise to his wonderful ELA teacher who planted those seeds in him this year. I looked at him and thought of my  late special and cherished friend Roberto and how a sixth grade teacher made a difference in his life, recognizing a spark in him and setting him on a path out of poverty through education and a career as an academic librarian (and by coincidence, a lifelong lover of poetry). I could not help but think of Roberto and felt his spirit smiling on us as he supported so many of my classroom projects the last six years; I hope that for our new Frost and poetry readers, the experiences with me, Reggie, and Margaret will be a catalyst as he goes forward and inspire his dreams and vision for himself.

Final Thoughts

If you are thinking of piloting a reading dog program, start with the organizations in your area.   While you definitely want a dog who enjoys being read to, it is also just as important for that dog to have a human who will be engaged and interact with kids like Margaret did.  If you are thinking of volunteering your own therapy dog for a school reading program at any level, your will have far more of an impact if you are an active participant like Margaret.

We have worked with all kinds of kids and learners this year, and it is our fervent hope that they will carry some of the hope, magic, and love from Reggie and us. These moments will stay in my heart forever, and I hope it will for them as well and fill them with light on days when life is challenging.   I have been lucky to experience so many incredible and memorable moments over the last 31 years as an educator, but this program and all the special moments are easily among my most cherished and important that will stay with me forever.

Thank you to our principal, our library staff, students, teachers, and the school cluster foundation who supported this program and its importance to our learners and our school.  My heartfelt thanks is not enough to Reggie and Margaret as well as Mercy and Honey (she came during her lunch hour from work, so her visits were limited, but we appreciate them!) as well as Nala who came once in late autumn.

To our Reggie’s Readers : “You still have a lot of time to make yourself be what you want. There’s still lots of good in the world…Stay gold, Ponyboy.” S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

To Margaret and Reggie: thank you for being the light you are and that you have brought to kids and adults alike. You ARE GOLDEN!

My one year stint as a part-time librarian is over in two weeks, but I hope that somehow I can work with Margaret and Reggie again.  I also am now interested in being a volunteer at some point in the not so distant future and possibly having my dachshund Edna get certified as she is very mellow and loving; she enjoys people of all ages loving on her and is super gentle.  I hope this post will inspire other middle and high schools to consider the benefits of reading dogs as a way to support literacy learning for tween and teen students; if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out, and I’m happy to answer any questions.

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