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Therapy dogs help Santa Maria students boost reading skills

Learning to read is one of the most important lessons kids are taught early in school.

It’s a skill that can be difficult for any child, but for about two dozen second grade students at Adam Elementary School in Santa Maria, it can be particularly challenging.

“We have in our classroom the intensive group,” said teacher Laurina Kusell. “Their homes are very limited in English and sometimes with Spanish because some of them come from Mixteco families, which that language has no literacy, so unfortunately at home, even though the parents would like to support these children, they just don’t have the skills to do it and that’s why they need anything that will give them encouragement and time to practice their reading.”

In an effort to help the children build their reading ability, Kusell is now using therapy dogs in the classroom.

“We have trainers from Therapy Dogs International come,” said Kusell. “They bring their dog and the dog is trained to be calm and be a great listener because the purpose is to have our second graders learn to be confident and learn that reading is fun.”

The dogs are part of a program called “Tail Waggin’ Tutors,” which is held by Therapy Dogs International across the country.

At Adam Elementary, the animals come to Kusell’s class as many as six times a month. Students read to the dogs for about 15-to-20 minutes each time.

“The dogs and the trainers make this a wonderful program for our second graders because they feel they’re not under pressure,” said Kusell. “Their friends aren’t going to laugh at them. They’re reading just them with the dog and the trainer and it gives them a really positive feeling about reading.”

The program started in Kusell’s classroom on Feb. 14. After six weeks, it’s been a big hit with students.

“It was fun,” said second grader Jesus Jimenez, describing his time with Rusti, a six-year old labradoodle. “She was licking me. She was at my feet.”

Rusti is one of four dogs that has visited the class. From the moment Rusti and her owner Linda Tarango walked into the room, the kids were immediately happy and excited.

“Rusti kisses and she stays sitting down,” said second grader Yaritza Hilario. “I like to read with Rusti.”

While Kusell does not yet have any specific data to show the therapy dogs are improving reading ability in the short period of time, she does feel, along with Tarango, the program is working.

“I have not done any assessment or done any actual test to see if this is improving their reading, but just gut feeling is that it’s definitely making them feel reading can be fun and that I can read,” said Kusell.

Tarango, who says next to Rusti while the children read to the dog, agrees.

“I’ve seen an improvement,” Tarango said. “The kids are reading faster. They seem to comprehend better. They’re recognizing the words. It’s a lot of fun to watch them grow and watch their reading skills get better.”

Kusell notes one of the best parts of the new program is that no funding is needed. The dogs and their trainers are here volunteering their time, so there’s absolutely no charge to the school.

“We enjoy it,” said Tarango. “(Rusti) enjoys it. She just loves it. She just gets absolutely energized by these kids.”

Kusell adds the therapy dogs will continue to be part of her curriculum for the rest of the school year. She’s hoping the program will spread to other schools.

“Hopefully, this will spread the word to other people who would like to join Therapy Dogs International and would like to come to classrooms and would like be involved with these great kids, who just need more adult and more dog time to learn to read,” said Kusell.

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