By Drs. Ben W. McClelland and Susan S. McClelland
At 8:00 a.m. on a recent Monday, I visited Whitney Drewrey’s self-contained, special education 3rd-5th-grade classroom at Lafayette County Upper Elementary School, where seventeen students eagerly wait for reading circle to begin. As in most elementary classrooms, the students are moving about, chatting with classmates, and some sit quietly. Unlike the typical classroom, these students present various academic, social, and behavioral challenges that can coincide with severe and cognitive disabilities. Thus, two full-time and one part-time teaching assistants help out.
Entering the classroom, I had company, because twice monthly on Monday mornings Whitney’s daughter-in-law, Danielle Drewrey, brings a Wildrose Therapy Dog or two to the reading circle. On this day Foxy, two-year-old yellow Labrador, accompanied Danielle. And Dr. Scott Wilson joined in with his dog, Sterling, also Wildrose Therapy Dog.
Danielle, a Wildrose Kennels trainer, is also the training coordinator for Wildrose Service Companions. Scott is the Wildrose Service Companions Director. They have been spearheading the use of service dog companions in a number of settings, including nursing homes, courtrooms, and schools.
Teacher Whitney Drewrey began at Lafayette Schools this year and, having had prior experience with therapy dogs in a school setting, she initiated this therapy dog project at the beginning of the school year. So, when I visited the classroom, everyone—students, teachers, trainers, and dogs—knew the routine for the reading circle, where the students sat on overstuffed chairs facing the teacher and Danielle, as well as Foxy, who was lying down intently watching the students. Scott and Sterling stood directly behind Danielle and Foxy. Whitney began by reading a page of The Berenstain Bears to the class. Then, she turned to a student to continue the reading. The student read to Foxy, who listened attentively.
As the reading circle activity continued, Whitney would read another page from the book and then call on another student to read another page to Foxy, who continued to remain patient and still, no distraction whatsoever. Quite the contrary, Foxy was attentive and focused throughout the activity until everyone had a chance to read to her. Because the focus of the activity was so limited to the task of one person reading aloud at a time and because it shifted from person to person, all of the students listened with rapt attention, too. Everyone was engaged in reading and listening.
“Why,” I asked Whitney, “did each student read to Foxy?”
Whitney explained “Students, who lack confidence because they are behind a grade level or more in reading fluency and comprehension, feel at ease as they read to a dog that listens attentively without judgment. The dog is not going to make fun of them for reading a “baby” book as some of their peers might call it.” This reading success, she said, builds the students’ confidence in reading out loud. If a child will find a love for reading, they will want to read more, and ultimately increase the fluency and comprehension component of their reading.
Educational research concurs with Whitney’s assessment of the value of her students’ reading to Foxy. A study revealed that the activity of students reading to a dog “targeted the students’ intrinsic motivation (i.e., the students wanted to read to the dog) and their self-efficacy (i.e., belief they could perform better each time they read). . . [which] can increase pride (Shernoff, Knauth, & Makris, 2000).
After Whitney and her students had finished reading the book, the students got their reward: taking turns, each one walked Foxy or Sterling down the school hallway. During this part of the activity, students lined up for their turn. Their excitement bubbled over in smiles and giggles.
Danielle held Foxy on a lead and when a student approached, Danielle reminded her or him to greet Foxy and pet her under her chin. Then, Danielle helped the student get into the correct position to walk the dog, handing the student walker another lead. Each student walker first gave Foxy the command, “sit,” followed by the command “heel” and off all three went walking down the school hallway. Scott and Sterling did the same, helping student walkers lead Sterling down another hallway. Both dogs, having been trained for this exercise, responded calmly with wagging tails to the commands and heeled alongside the student walker and the handler. The looks on the student walkers’ faces indicated joy, anxiety, giddiness, or serene task mastery, depending on the various students’ experiences. Regardless, at the end of the walk, each student told the dog to sit, thanked the dog, and appeared to me to have had a good experience—and for many a challenging one.
Meanwhile, back in the classroom, the awaiting students watched the dogs, handlers, and classmate walkers go down the hallway and disappear, soon to return again for a new walker’s turn.
After the visit Danielle said, “This activity gives the students life lessons, learning how to approach a dog, pet it under the neck, and give it commands, such as ‘sit’ and ‘heel.’ Doing this activity, the students learn patience and feel the empowerment and responsibility of directing the dog.” Educational research supports this observation. From their study Harris and Sholtis report, “close relationships with companion animals may increase children’s self-esteem, encourage self-control and autonomy, and reduce alienation” (Harris & Sholtis).
Danielle and Whitney plan to incorporate incentive plans into the program in the next stage and also incorporate other subject areas, like math. For example, to incorporate money, Whitney already has an activity where she draws a circle on a student’s desk with a dry erase marker and pours a pile of coins on their desk. She calls out coins to identify first then begins to call out amounts of money for the students to make using the available coins and drag into the circle on their desk to be checked before moving on. Danielle can use Foxy as an incentive in this lesson. If a student can first identify all of their coins they will get to walk Foxy. If they can get 3 of the 5 questions correct they can do a retrieve with Foxy. If they can write their own question, present it to a peer and help them answer it they can walk Foxy independently. Because, Whitney knows that money identification is a skill they can all perform, she knows they will all get to, at the very least, walk Foxy. As more objectives are mastered in class more lessons with Foxy are gained.
Whitney also pointed out that Danielle’s presence is another significant part of the classroom social environment. She is another teacher to whom the children can relate. Because Danielle has been expecting a baby this year, the students have been eager to keep up with her and her baby’s development. The students are comfortable with her and feel she is an important part of their class. Last fall a boy called her from class on a phone and invited her to the class’s Pumpkin Patch activity, where
Whitney had set up activities on the school’s practice football field, including a four-wheeler pulling a hay wagon, with kids, Danielle, and dog aboard. Afterwards, Danielle, Fawn, and some parents watched as the students picked pumpkins and painted them. This day built up the social relations of the class with Danielle and the service dogs.
In Whitney’s classroom two students within the autism spectrum have experienced substantial benefits this year from engaging with Wildrose Therapy Dogs, Fawn and Foxy. As an example, Whitney said, “At the beginning of the school year one student paid no attention to the dog’s presence. Over time, he began to acknowledge the dog. Now he focuses on the dog and is eager to walk the dog, with a trainer helping. This activity is calming, enabling him to slow down and give commands, such as ‘heel,’ to the dog.” As Harris and Sholtis report, “For the most part, children with autism are accustomed to having others take care of them; the role switch that occurs as they care for their dog is educational and has the potential to develop empathy, a trait often in need of strengthening in children with autism because they have difficulty keeping other perspectives in mind” (Harris & Sholtis).
For Whitney Drewrey’s students with multiple disabilities and areas of need, the therapy dog project for the reading circle produced many and varied benefits. In the book-reading process the dog’s presence focuses the students’ attention and motivates them to engage in the academic activity. Walking the dog enables students’ physical, tactile stimulation and motivates them to move around, thus improving muscle development. Moreover, students practiced new social skill development and engaged differently in learning activities in an emotionally receptive environment. Finally, in interacting with the therapy dog, students felt ownership and responsibility, developing their self-confidence and social skills.
Harris, Kathleen I. & Stephanie D. Sholtis, “Companion Angels on a Leash: Welcoming Service Dogs Into Classroom Communities for Children With Autism.” Childhood Education, Volume 92, 2016 – Issue 4.
Shernoff, D. J., Knauth, S., & Makris, E. (2000). The quality of classroom experiences. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & B. Schneider, Becoming adult: How teenagers prepare for the world of work. New York: Basic Books, as cited in: Analysis of an Animal-Assisted Reading Intervention for Young Adolescents with Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities. By: Bassette, Laura A., Taber-Doughty, Teresa, Research in Middle Level Education Online, 19404476, 2016, Vol. 39, Issue 3.