“Thank you for bringing Fenway!” exclaims an elementary student at El Verano, waving goodbye to a big brown Labrador. “He makes me less shy,” he says to Fenway Bark’s owner, Mara Kahn.
Fenway, along with other reading dogs from 4Paws, makes it easier for students to read aloud by creating a safe place in which kids read only to the dogs. Their human owners may help a little, like asking questions about the story, or sounding out the tougher words.
Fenway, like his four-footed colleagues, never corrects or rolls his eyes at mispronounced words or mistakes. Once the children realize this, they start relaxing. Sometimes they will show the pictures to the dogs; others delight in finding doggy-themed books. Their self-esteem goes up, they see themselves as better students, and so are less nervous when they read aloud.
Fenway, Maggie, Max, Isiah, and Reuben are all part of the 4Paws Readers of the Pack (ROP) program that was first implemented in El Verano’s 2013 Summer Reading Academy. Since then, several teachers have invited the teams to their classrooms during the year, and have seen the progress their kids made.
Criag Madison was one of those teachers. “The students are so comfortable and really want to show what good readers they are becoming,” he said. “I cannot emphasize enough how something so simple can create such a special time in class where children feel safe and love to do what they are learning.”
Yet the need for ROP teams, especially in Sonoma, outstrips the number of teams available. To that end, 4Paws President, Joanne Yates, wrote a grant proposal to Impact100 Sonoma and, this May, the non-profit was awarded a $2,200 grant to hold more training sessions locally.
“What a great opportunity—not only for the students our teams can work with, but for community members who can do something special with their own dogs,” says Yates.
Learning to read can be the make-or-break moment in a child’s life, Yates believes. Children need to see themselves as successful readers in order to become good students. If they never learn to read well, their choices about the future become pretty limited.
4Paws teams also visit healthcare venues where people welcome and benefit both emotional and mental support, such as Sonoma Developmental Center. The staff there would like to see teams work with some residents in classroom settings.
Currently therapy canines Chardonnay and Reuben bring wagging tails to Sonoma Valley Hospital and several local assisted living facilities with Sherry Harrington and Sue Cole, who often visit together with their dogs.
Photo: Hunter Ward and Sulieka Carillo Villalobos share some quality time with Fenway Bark, the therapy dog.