Dogs help Statham students build reading skills

STATHAM - Statham Elementary School goes to the dogs two days each week. Actually, the dogs go to the school.

Four trained dogs certified through Therapy Dogs International visit the media center mid-week. For 15-minute segments, students curl up on a rug with a dog and read aloud to the animal. The program is designed to help all students build reading skills.

The kids love it, and wait eagerly for their appointment with their canine buddy, said Natalie Lett, media specialist.

"I've never had a student refuse to come," Lett said of the two-year-old program. "Particularly struggling readers have the opportunity to read in a non-threatening environment. The dog makes no judgments. It has been trained to be still and quiet. The dog usually goes to sleep."

The program is open to all of the more than 900 students in all grade levels at Statham Elementary. Eight students per week get their turn to read to a dog.

The program began when Lett read an article about New Jersey-based Therapy Dogs International, founded in 1976.

"I wondered if this was something we could do," Lett said. "Our principal was supportive. He has a dog that goes to nursing homes."

Susan Clingenpeel, a veterinarian by profession, and 3-year-old Lily are regulars at the school.

"I am a proponent of working dogs and service dogs," she said. "I raised a puppy to help those in wheelchairs and I wanted to do something with my personal pets."

Clingenpeel and Lily volunteer through Atlanta Therapaws, a subsidiary of TDI. Lily was certified as a therapy dog after passing the American Kennel Club's Good Citizenship test.

"Lily is a good, smart dog with a gentle personality," Clingenpeel said. "She likes all the attention. The kids seem to be so relaxed because they don't have their peers watching them. I rarely encounter kids who are afraid."

Therapaws and TDI are always looking for well-behaved dogs to volunteer.

"We encourage people who have well-trained dogs to consider participating because there are many areas where Therapaws dogs can go, hospices, nursing homes."

The Buford and Suwanee branches of the Gwinnett County Public Library sponsor a Doggie Tales day that allows children age 5 and up to read to a dog. Call the Gwinnett County Public Library at 770-822-4522 for dates and times.

For more information about Therapy Dogs International, call 973-252-9800 or find them on the Web at www.tdi-dog.org.