With a little help from their friends

ISHPEMING – Kids in second grade at Aspen Ridge School in Ishpeming Township are discovering that they read better and have more confidence in their reading when they practice with a furry friend.

Once a week kids will spend 10 minutes reading aloud to therapy dogs from SuperiorLand Pet Partners as part of the “Read to Me” program, and teachers and the dogs’ guardians say the benefits to the kids are almost immediately apparent.

“They lose all their inhibitions … There’s nobody judging them and there’s something about the animals that just calms them right down,” said Cliff Heliste, who participates in the program with his dog, Sam. “You can see the changes almost from week to week in the ones that are having trouble.”

“It’s received very well and the kids are doing excellent with it, so it’s nice to see when they start reading sometimes they’re real shaky and real quiet, and by the end of the 10 minutes – which isn’t a long time! – there’s confidence in their voice,” said Pet Partners member Julie Hosang. “It’s just amazing what reading to a dog can do.”

Hosang brought “Read to Me” to Aspen Ridge three years ago, and said it’s the only school in the U.P. to have such a program. Hosang said that “the dogs have an impact whether we understand it or not,” and related a couple of success stories. One boy, she said, came and read to her dog, Toby, and had the “most amazing speaking voice” she’d ever heard. Encouraged by his experience reading to Toby, Hosang said the boy went back to the classroom and amazed his teacher and classmates, who had previously only heard him whisper and stutter.

Hosang said that teachers also worked with Pet Partners to conduct an experiment on the dogs’ efficacy. The second graders were separated according to reading ability, and students from every group read to the dogs. The teachers then tested their students’ abilities at the end of the year. Hosang said that no matter their initial reading ability, kids in every group showed improvement after book time with the dogs.

Any dog at least one year old can be trained to become a “pet partner,” provided they have a friendly temperament, Hosang said. Dogs are tested and then rated according to 29 points, including how well they react to strangers touching them or bumping them, their ability to adjust to distractions, such as large numbers of people, noisy environments and other dogs and their obedience.

“Not just any dog can do it,” Hosang said. “It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of training, but it’s well worth it, because when you come here and you see the improvements in the kids, it’s amazing.”

Isabella Hess, a 7-year-old second grader at Aspen Ridge, sat down next to Heliste’s dog, Sam, and proceeded to read her book straight through, pausing only to giggle when Sam lay his head in the open book on her lap.

When her 10 minutes were up and she headed back to her classroom, she looked back at the friendly white dog that had listened to her story.

“Bye, Sam!” she called out.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.