— The gray and white pit bull sat in the center of the
circle of fifth-graders. He listened attentively as the
students took turns reading to him. At times, his droopy
eyes appeared to lock with those of the readers.
Knox is one of the "pet ambassadors" who
travel to Westport Academy Elementary/Middle School
every Tuesday to listen to students read as part of an
effort to improve their reading skills and boost their
say practicing reading with dogs promotes confidence
among students who may struggle to read at grade level.
The Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals, one of the country’s oldest animal welfare
groups, has been working with the school since January.
was one of those kids growing up that reading out loud
was scary for me," said Katie Flory, the Maryland
SPCA’s community affairs director. "A lot of the
kids here feel the same way. But with the dogs, they don’t
have to worry about that. They’re not being
programs are catching on in animal shelters and schools
across the country.
than 5 percent of students at Westport passed the
English Language Arts portion of the statewide
assessments last year. Flory said it’s too early to
measure what impact reading to dogs might have on test
scores. But Principal Melody Locke said it has already
influenced the culture in the South Baltimore school.
can say that interest in reading has definitely
increased," she said. "This is a piece of the
puzzle, just getting them interested in picking books
2010, researchers at the University of California, Davis
studied a group of students who read to dogs once a week
for 10 weeks. They found that third graders improved
their reading fluency by 12 percent.
experience also changed students’ feelings toward
reading aloud. At the beginning of the study, students
told the researchers that they felt self-conscious,
clumsy, and uncomfortable reading out loud. By the end,
they described it as fun and cool, and said they felt
more relaxed when reading to a dog.
Knox, the pitbull, and Lucy Gaga, a Boston terrier, walk
through the Westport doors, they’re immediately
enveloped by students who are excited to read to them,
pet them, and cuddle with them on fuzzy carpets in the
school’s multipurpose room.
students always look forward" to reading to the
dogs, third grade teacher Kelsey Stritzinger said.
"Their faces light up anytime I say, ‘We have
Allen, a 10-year-old fifth grader, said she has become a
more confident reader since the dogs started showing up
at her school. She likes it so much that she started
reading to her own dog at home. She said her chihuahua,
Missy, is a much more attentive listener than her little
dog never gets up and says, ‘I want to leave, this is
boring,’" Deasia said.
200 Westport students read to the dogs on an
alternating, bi-weekly schedule.
students flip through an age-appropriate book with an
animal theme. They are encouraged to gently help their
classmates sound out difficult words, or point them to
the right page should they get lost.
they read, Lucy Gaga weaves underneath the plastic blue
chairs. Nearby, Knox sits in his doggy bed, while
students lean over to pet him.
books tie into larger lesson plans taught by SPCA staff
on the humane treatment of animals. The staff members
explain how to greet a dog correctly and what pet care
entails, among other topics.
SPCA hopes to leave students with more compassion for
animals and each other. The students go on field trips
to the shelter, and learn how to show love and care to
cats and dogs.
say animal abuse indicates a person is more likely to
also turn to violence against people.
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abuse is reported in the area around Westport at a
greater rate than in the city as a whole. In the
Westport, Mt. Winans and Lakeland neighborhoods, city
officials reported 296 calls about animals in danger per
10,000 households in 2016. The citywide average was 177.
like how the children respond to the whole idea of being
compassionate to animals," Locke said. "If
they’re compassionate to animals, the connection will
be made to be compassionate to fellow human
said she notices students behaving more gently toward
each other when they read to the dogs. That’s
especially important at a school like Westport, she
said, where about 30 percent of students have special
needs and may be more susceptible to bullying.
program is funded with a $15,000 grant from the The
Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The foundation’s
Baltimore Library Project has transformed libraries at
14 middle and elementary schools in recent years.
SPCA hopes to expand the program to more Weinberg
libraries in coming years.
helped some of our more shy students come out of their
shells," said Rachel Duden, a program associate
with the foundation. "Reading to the dogs and not
feeling like they have to be scared has helped them