Staff Photo: John Bohn Starling Elementary School third-grade students Alejandra Inglesias-Fierro, 8, center, and Daniel Dimola, 9, left, practice their reading skills with the Tail Waggin' Tutors program. These students from Grayson have the opportunity to practice reading out loud to dogs every other Tuesday morning.
GRAYSON -- Ten-year-old Anit Uppoottio sits on the floor reading a children's book. A shaggy Pomeranian named Pee Wee lounges at her side.
The tiny dog seems to listen, beady eyes staring up, as the girl strings words together with ease.
Reading is not always quite this easy, Uppoottio said.
"Having the dog here, it makes me feel calm," she said. "I don't have a dog, and I enjoy being around them, so I guess that's why."
Twice a month, the staff at Starling Elementary pairs students with trained canines as part of the Tail Waggin' Tutors program. Media Specialist Kristie Michalowski said it offers children the chance to hone their reading skills before a neutral listener.
"They're comfortable with dogs, because dogs don't judge them," said Michalowski, who oversees the program at her school. "For some children, reading can be very difficult, and reading aloud is just plain scary for them, but let them sit down with one of these dogs, and all that nervousness seems to fade away."
Gesturing toward Uppoottio, Michalowski notes that some of the children don't even realize that the canines are helping them, but they are.
The 10-year-old girl's hand moves in a steady motion, almost subconsciously petting the dog as she reads.
"Pee Wee's" master and trainer, Marilyn Murray, said she enjoys bringing the Pomeranian to Starling twice a month.
"The satisfaction the kids get makes it all worthwhile," said Murray, who has been bringing dogs to the school for more than three years now. "Also interesting ... is watching children decide which dogs they want to read to when they walk in the room."
There are generally about three or four canines who arrive for the program and dozens of children who benefit.
Sponsored by Therapy Dogs International, the Tail Waggin' Tutors program aims to help introduce children to books. According to Cindy Flanary, director of the organization's local chapter, the program is successful because "children have a non-judgmental dog listening to them read. A dog won't correct their pronunciation or make fun of them if they get a word wrong."
Flanary said that volunteers with the local chapter of Therapy Dogs International also visit eight different branches in the Gwinnett County Public Library System as well as locations in DeKalb and around metro Atlanta.
Principal Donna Ledford said she's always glad when the organization stops by with its volunteers and their four-legged friends.
"The children love it," Ledford said. "Whether they're struggling with reading or just need a little push, it's very beneficial for them."
Added Ledford: "the dogs seem to love it, too."
"Pee Wee" the Pomeranian stares up at Uppoottio, tiny tongue curling out, tail wagging. The 10-year-old girl reads on, hand stroking the animal's fur. "Just something about this ... petting and reading," she said. "I don't worry at all."
For more information about Therapy Dogs International, visit www.tdi-dog.org.
To contact the local chapter, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.