Community Education

Tutors with Tails having a paws-itive impact on literacy

Posted on June 12th, 2024 By:

Special guests have made weekly visits to Harbor Heights Elementary School in Gig Harbor, along with Evergreen and Minter Creek Elementary on the Key Peninsula. These visitors specialize in lying on the floor, eliciting smiles and accepting a snuggle — all while listening to students read.

In 2019, Communities in Schools of Peninsula and the Peninsula School District launched a pilot program, Tutors with Tails, to bring therapy dogs into the schools to bolster literacy. 

“Our goal is to build our program with more dog teams with the hope to have them in all of the schools (in the Peninsula) and South Kitsap school districts,” said Myka Cranford, volunteer and communications director for Communities in Schools of Peninsula. 

Autumn, a Bernese mountain dog, is a natural at her job. She visits Minter Creek and Vaughn Elementary Schools to listen to students read for the Communities In Schools of Peninsula Tutors with Tails program.
Photo courtesy of Communities In Schools of Peninsula

Therapy dogs in schools

Cathy Rich, the vice chair of the Communities in Schools board, got the idea for the program after watching a national news story about therapy dogs. She approached the school district and proposed using therapy dogs to increase literacy. She started with Minter Creek in 2019, with the first team of  Jeff Essayan and his dog Brody.

“We feel very fortunate that the PSD leadership recognized the value of pet therapy in the educational arena, and were on board from the beginning,” Rich said.

The concept is simple: Provide struggling elementary students with an opportunity to read in a safe environment. It boosts literacy, confidence and social skills.

“Across the country, certified therapy dogs are headed to school with their handlers as volunteer tutors,” Rich said. “The safe and comfortable environment provided by the canine companions is ideal for early readers who sometimes feel awkward reading in front of others.”

Harbor Heights Elementary School principal Allison Shepard said the program helps students build confidence in reading.

“The goal of our Tutors with Tails reading program is to get students in a positive mindset, engage them and help them practice and gain confidence in their reading skills,” Shepard said. “As a drop-out prevention organization, CISP is uniquely committed to education and preparedness. Our therapy teams are passionate about supporting literacy, and a therapy animal team provides an engaging, non-judgmental, creative opportunity for all students to get excited about building their skills.”

Dog days at school

CISP assigns site coordinators to participating schools. Working with school staff, they determine the specific needs at the school, said Harmony Armendariz, the site coordinator at Minter  Creek. 

“We then develop goals for the school and students that are referred to be on our caseload,” Armendariz said. “Our focus is on building and strengthening relationships with students and their families while providing integrated school support in the areas of social emotional skills, basic needs, academics, behavior, attendance or school climate.”

When CISP asked Armendariz to be a part of the Tutors with Tails pilot program, she felt it had the potential to have a positive impact on students in a variety of ways, she said.

“With the help of teachers, I select students that could use the extra practice with reading, and that could benefit from the therapeutic experience of spending time with the dog,” she said. “I am intentional about selecting reading material that reflects the diversity of the world that we live in.”

Canines create confidence

Over the past six years, Armendariz said she has watched students display an increase in fluency, comprehension and confidence in the once-a-week Tutors with Tails visits.

Principal Todd Hering said Minter Creek Elementary teachers have definitely seen a difference since the Tutors with Tails teams of dog and owner have been coming to the school.

“It has made a huge difference with our beginning readers,” Hering said, “especially with their confidence and fluency. They love reading to their furry friend, knowing they will just listen with no pressure. We see students in this program grow so much in  a short amount of time.”

Sally Joseph of Gig Harbor has volunteered with her Bernese mountain dogs since the program began in 2019. She started with Annie at Harbor Heights, continued with Sadie, and now has a 13-month-old named Autumn. Sadly, Annie and Sadie have passed on, but they brought years of joy to many students.

Therapy dog Rohan works with students to help build their literacy through Communities In Schools of Peninsula’s Tutors with Tails program. His owner is Cathleen Fitzgerald. Photo courtesy of CISP

That was even true during the pandemic, when students read to the pups via Zoom.

“The kids would read to her on screen, and she would just lay there. It was heartwarming to see how the kids responded, and how they relaxed,” Joseph said.

A breed apart

Bernese mountain dogs are Joseph’s preferred breed for therapy dog work, she said.

“We’ve had these dogs for 25 years,” she said. “They are so wonderful, even-tempered, big, floofy, friendly breed of dog, and they take to therapy work pretty naturally.”

Autumn earned her certification as a therapy dog at just 6 months from the Gabriel Institute. She also recently earned her AKC therapy dog title, Joseph said.

Brody, a golden retriever, worked with students at Minter Creek until 2020. His human, Jeff Essayan, said that of all of the Golden Retrievers he has had, Brody was special. Brody passed away last year, and left a legacy of love. 

“The thing that amazed me, they would tell me the parents would call and ask, ‘what did you do,’ because after an hour with the dog the kids would change before your eyes,” Essayan said. “I’m glad that I could contribute, and obviously it was a success, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.”

Now, Essayan hopes his puppy Blue, another a golden retriever, will follow in Brody’s paw steps. But he said it isn’t clear yet what Blue’s role will be.

“He’s coming along well for an 8-month-old, and I started training him at 8 weeks,” he said. “I know what it takes for him to pass, and he needs a little bit more work.”

For more information about volunteering with Communities in Schools of Peninsula email [email protected], or call 253-884-5733.

For information about the Tutors with Tails program contact Myka Cranford at [email protected], or call 253-509-9397.