Dogs read with students at Trailside Elementary School | ParkRecord.com

Dogs read with students at Trailside Elementary School

Bella Bernal, a kindergartner at Trailside Elementary, reads a book to Benno, a five-year-old Bernese Mountain dog, during class on Nov. 30. The class took turns reading books to Benno, who is a volunteer dog with Intermountain Therapy Animals, and his owner, Ellen Folke, center.

The students in Sue Minneci's kindergarten class see Benno as a fellow classmate. Like them, he goes everywhere with a trusted adult, he is still learning how to read and he turned 5 years old this year. The only difference is that Benno is a dog.

Benno, a Bernese mountain dog, is part of the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program at Trailside Elementary School. Once a week, he and his owner, Ellen Folke, visit the class so students can take turns reading to him.

"They're not intimidated by the animal like they would be if it were an adult," Minneci said. "They get to sit with a dog who is safe. It's calming."

Minneci said that by reading to Benno, the children are motivated to practice. They choose their books a day in advance so they are ready to read it to him and Folke.

“(Benno) doesn’t laugh when they make a mistake. He loves to listen to them read.” -Ellen Folke, volunter with Intermountain Therapy Animals

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R.E.A.D. is a global program run by the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Intermountain Therapy Animals. Dogs and their owners go through hours of training to be certified.

Minneci was introduced to Intermountain Therapy Animals by another teacher who occasionally brought in her own therapy dog to the classroom. Three years ago, Folke and Benno were just finishing their training when they were matched with Minneci's class.

Since then, Minneci has helped other teachers at Trailside adopt the program, such as Mark Etheridge, who has Mark Miller and Macy, a golden retriever, visit every week. Now, every kindergarten class at Trailside has a different team.

Miller brings small groups of students out to the hall so the kids can throw a ball for Macy before Miller reads a book to the students. Etheridge said that he wanted to have Miller read rather than the kids to focus on teaching the "joy of reading."

"You have these basics that we need to teach," he said. "It's (very) repetitive so they can get it down and master it. This is just another super fun way to review reading without them realizing it."

He sees kids who are not able to concentrate well in the classroom sit quietly beside Macy, listening to Miller read. Henry Cunningham, a student in Etheridge's class, said it is his favorite part of Macy's visits.

Henry Cunningham, right, and Sadie Rifkin listen to Mark Miller read a book during R.E.A.D. time with his dog Macy. They started visiting Mark Etheridge’s kindergarten class last year. (Carolyn Webber / Park Record)

"We get to pet the dog while Mark is reading," he said.

Minneci said that bringing in Folke and Benno helps improve students' reading abilities. Plus, since the students love Benno's visits, it is an incentive for them to behave in the classroom.

"Sometimes if it's noisy I'll say, 'Oh, that really hurts the dog's ears,'" she said.

Folke, who is by Benno's side as the kids read to him and pet him, listens to them while they read out loud. She will occasionally correct the kids or ask them to explain something about what they are reading. If they are struggling, she will tell them that Benno does not know how to read yet, but that is OK. They will learn soon.

"He doesn't laugh when they make a mistake," she said. "He loves to listen to them read."

Miller has been bringing Macy to meet people in hospitals, senior centers and schools for several years. He said the main reason he participates in the program is for Macy. She loves visiting the kids each week, and they love her as well.

In Minneci's class, the students write Benno notes on Valentine's Day so they can practice writing and they ask to invite him on field trips. They all look forward to his weekly visits and in the meantime, they are learning to master their reading skills.

"Anything I can do to get them to love school, I'll do," Minneci said. "We have fun here. We learn, but we get to do things like this."