First graders at Crozet Elementary take turns practicing their reading skills each week with a few unconventional listeners, one of whom is named Lucy. Lucy is quiet, easy-going, and nonjudgmental, though she does occasionally give her readers a friendly lick. Lucy is a therapy dog, a black lab belonging to volunteer Ellen Braun, who brings Lucy to Sarah Ackenbom’s first grade class for regular visits to spend a little quality reading time with the students.
The use of therapy animals in reading programs for children is a growing trend in Virginia. Research shows children can improve their reading skills by reading aloud, and pet therapy advocates say reading to animals reduces a child’s self-consciousness. The Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA’s Pet Therapy Program, for example, where Braun and Lucy got their start, currently provides reading support at eight area schools and libraries. “The kids are able to get comfortable with a dog,” explained Braun, “and so they have an experience with reading that is relaxed and joyful.”
Not to be confused with service dogs, who assist people with life-limiting disabilities by serving as their full-time companions, therapy dogs are pets, handled by their owners, who interact with people in their community as a team. In addition to providing reading support for children, therapy dog teams may visit hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, inviting patients to pet or even snuggle with the animal while absorbing its calm, doggy vibe. Not just any hound can be a therapy dog, however—a canine candidate must complete a rigorous training and certification process to qualify.
Braun, who adopted Lucy from Lab Rescue of Greater Richmond, said the training follows two stages. “First is obedience training, to cement the bond between the dog and owner, and then the dog visits institutional settings such as nursing homes and hospitals to make sure she can adapt to different mixes of people, smells, and levels of tension.” Once Lucy was certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Braun took her to read with children at the Crozet Library, and eventually began partnering with Ackenbom at Crozet Elementary.
Ackenbom said she’s grateful for the impact the therapy team has had. “It’s impossible to explain the feeling of having a sweet, loving dog around a group of six- and seven-year-olds,” she said. “Their young souls are soothed by having an animal in the classroom.” Ackenbom chooses the students who read with Lucy in two ways, for two 30-minute sessions each week. “One selection is at random out of a hat, and when all have read with Lucy we start over. The second selection is more ‘need-based,’ if a child is having a difficult time with a particular skill, or perhaps needs to feel successful because something else challenged them recently.” She said the team is a key piece that she uses “to ensure all of my students feel loved and supported in my classroom.”
Braun has helped arrange for two other certified teams—Anne Townsend and her yellow lab Daisy, and Brenda Neckerman and her black lab Lila—to work with the other two first grade classes at Crozet Elementary. Looking ahead, she’d like to recruit more teams to expand the program to kindergarten and second grade. “A good match would be a dog owner who is dedicated to literacy, who can work within a school system and respect a teacher’s timing needs, and who can integrate their work with a given curriculum.”
Other pet therapies in use around Albemarle County involve animals such as cats, baby goats, miniature horses, and even llamas, but the Crozet Elementary students love their lab. When asked how they feel about reading with Lucy, they gave answers such as, “She makes me feel special,” “She’s helped me be a faster reader,” and “I like the way she looks at me.” One student expressed plainly what she liked best: “Well, she’s a DOG!”
Braun says that for some kids it’s all about the reading, while for others the session might help a child who is struggling to get through a tough day, and both are heart-warming. “It’s nice to see my beloved pet in a situation where she can make a difference, but it’s also nice to see teachers, who do a really hard job, getting some support from community members,” she said. “Kids’ literacy is so important, and it’s on all of us to support the teachers as they do this work.”