MONITOR, TOWNSHIP, MI — Third-grader Madison Marsh sat in the hallway of Mackensen Elementary last week, reading to Andi, a spaniel mix. Andi poked her nose over the book — “Julie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus” — to take a peek, and Madison couldn't stop giggling.
Andi was at Mackensen for the new “Paws for a Book: Readers Rock” program that gives students in second and third grades a chance to read to therapy dogs, boosting their reading confidence and fluency in the process. Karrie Marciniak, a program organizer and an intervention teacher at Mackensen, explained that the program gives kids a chance to work on their reading without worrying about being perfect.
“The dogs don't care if they make mistakes, and they're not going to correct them,” Marciniak explained. She said that the reading on Friday, Oct. 24, was the second installment in a weekly program she hopes will last at least until January.
Handlers for the dogs are volunteers from Tail Waggin' Tutors, part of Therapy Dogs International, and they brought a range of canines, from Andi — a lolling, foot-and-a-half-tall spaniel — to Tucker, a giant of a dog with a costume saddle and a stuffed cowboy on his back.
“I've had anywhere from kindergarten up to middle school kids,” said Teresa Gill, Tucker's handler. “They love it. Half the time we won't get halfway through the book. The dog will love on them, and the kids will love on them right back.”
Part of what the program helps with, Gill explained, is self-esteem. Kids can often feel nervous when they're singled out to read in front of a class; reading to dogs can help them build the confidence they need while staying in a safe space.
Besides just reading, it's a chance to hang out with dogs, too.
“He kept licking my ear,” said Colin Brady, a second-grader, smiling as he remembered his turn to read. “Dogs like to do that to me.”
The Paws for a Book Service Team, which has more than 20 students signed up, plans to meet once a week for an hour for the rest of the year. Another goal of the program is to give kids the chance to start coordinating service projects in the community, using the dogs to make a difference for local residents.
Kids on the service team compile literary care packages for children in the hospital, Marciniak said, and deliver them alongside the dogs. They also visit and read to residents of a local assisted living home with the canines and lead a drive for pet food and supplies.
“If we can start them young … when they're young adults, they're more likely to serve their community,” Marciniak said.
Marciniak explained that the program is funded by two grants totaling $6,000 — money that is used to help provide small thank-you items for dog handlers at the school and pay for items included in care packages through the service program. The money won't last forever, though, Marciniak said, and she hopes the program can continue in years ahead.
Marciniak said anyone who would like to donate to the program can do so by writing a check out to “Mackensen Elementary School Paws Program” and mailing it to the school at 5535 Dennis Drive, Bay City, MI 48706. She added that residents can also drop off items for the literary care packages at Mackensen, including books, notebooks and markers.
Julie Robinson, principal at Mackensen, praised the service program.
“I think it's great,” she said. “I think any time we can get kids reading in different contexts and different formats, it just gets them excited.”