Each Wednesday, the students in the Wardle Family YMCA's after-school program gather to read out loud.
Not really to each other.
And not to their teacher.
Rather, they read to a pet.
"And it's more fun than reading out loud in class," Tucker McConnell, 10, a fifth-grader at Mossy Oaks Elementary, said recently after reading to Chloe, a Doberman pinscher.
Chloe's owner, Rebecca Bass, brought Tail Waggin' Tutors, a program developed as part of Therapy Dogs International, to the Beaufort YMCA last spring. The students read everything from children's books to National Geographic aloud to Dobermans and cocker spaniels.
Kaylin Caron, the YMCA's child care director, said the Y is always looking for volunteers who have special skills to add to the after-school program. Bass, a mortgage lender, offered Tail Waggin' Tutors, and it has proven to be among the favorites on several end-of-year parent surveys about the programs.
More than 52 percent of the after-school students are on financial assistance, Caron added, "So some students don't always have a similar opportunity at home, so they really open up. They really enjoy it. It definitely brings a different element into learning to read and to read aloud. ... Statistics out there show that this really improves reading skills."
A recent ABC News report about a program similar to Tail Waggin' Tutors cited a University of California Davis study that determined students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn't read to dogs showed no improvement.
According to the Therapy Dogs International website, the benefits of the Tail Waggin' Tutors program include improvement of children's reading skills and greater excitement about reading, as well as the joy and motivation kids get from being around a dog.
Therapy and tutors Bass said dogs used by people with disabilities are "service dogs" and are trained to provide assistance to their handlers. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, "provide unconditional love and cheer."
The first Beaufort chapter of Therapy Dog International was formed in February and is eager to bring in new members. On alternate weeks, Bass and two other handlers bring their dogs to the Y for Tail Waggin' Tutors. They visit after-school classes, divide the students into reading groups and let them read one at a time to the dogs.
Bass has seen the children in the program improve both their reading skills and their confidence in public speaking.
"Dogs don't judge them," Bass said, like they might fear their peers would were they to make a mistake or not read fluently.
With Tail Waggin' Tutors, Bass said, "We've had kids who didn't want to do it, who were very, very shy and didn't want to read in front of other kids. And I tell them, â€˜Please, just focus on Chloe, and I'm here to help you if you need me,' and they completely got over it. And now they are like, â€˜Pick me! Pick me!' to read next."
In addition, Bass said, some children "are apprehensive at first because they hadn't been around a well-trained dog" but are "delighted" with the therapy animals. In the Y program, Bass has seen so many kids lose their fear of dogs. "Just today, a little girl ran up to Chloe and threw her arms around (the dog's) neck and said, â€˜Chloe is my favorite dog in the whole world.' As her owner and her mom, I was so gratified."
Multi-tasking dogs The dogs also visit the elderly in assisted living facilities and in programs for adults with disabilities, as well as hospital patients. She's seen similar reactions to the animals there, where Bass said the residents are often bored until the dogs come through the door.
"I have a 92-year-old man who will literally leap from his chair to get to the dogs faster," she said. Certified therapy dogs must pass a test, which, Bass said, is "very similar to the American Kennel Club's good-citizen test, which is basic obedience and good manners around strangers, whether they're people, other dogs or children.
A therapy dog evaluation also presents the dogs with other distractions like somebody with a walker or a wheelchair, or several children rushing up to ensure they don't have any fear or show aggression at all."
Owners whose dogs don't pass the test receive pointers on what they need to work on in a training program to be a therapy dog.
Alexis Middleton, 11, is in sixth grade at Beaufort Middle School and felt her first week in the Tail Waggin' Tutors program was "kind of fun." She is excited to come again.
Brooke Stevens, 10, an extroverted fifth grader at Shell Point Elementary, described herself as "definitely an animal lover." Of the Tail Waggin' Tutors program, she said, "I really love it; we get to kind of express our feelings to the dogs."