Asia, a 3-year-old Newfoundland, looks as content as a pup in a Purina pet food factory.
Sprawled out on the cool linoleum floor in a room at Bluffton Elementary School, aptly named "Asia's Reading Room," the floppy, black dog appears to be hanging onto every word as a second-grade boy reads aloud from "All About Animal Babies."
As the student reads, pronouncing his words slowly with the proper punctuation, Asia practically falls into a trance caused by the sound of the young boy's gentle voice.
The student and Asia, his captive canine, are participants in Tail Waggin' Tutors. The program is a division of Therapy Dogs International, which is an organization that provides volunteer tutoring, mentoring and reading with trained dogs for students who struggle with reading. Its objective is to create a relaxed atmosphere that allows students to practice the skill of reading.
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Since its startup at the beginning of the school year, the impact of the program has been positive, said Kimberly Young, early childhood literacy interventionist at Bluffton Elementary. Abby Bird, a longtime professional trainer and owner of AlphaDog Training Academy in Bluffton, and Irene Randall, both tutor three Bluffton Elementary students individually once a week.
Okatie, Pritchardville, Michael C. Riley and Red Cedar elementary schools, and Bluffton Middle School, also have students in the program. Currently, there are 12 tutors and their 12 dogs volunteering in Bluffton. There also are four Tail Waggin' Tutors volunteering at Hilton Head Island Elementary and six tutors at Beaufort Elementary.
"Students who struggled with reading insecurity issues have blossomed and become confident eager readers," Young said. "One of my students actually keeps track of the number of days until he gets to see Miss Abby and Asia because he looks forward to spending time with them reading and playing literacy games,"
Bird, named one of Petco's top 10 dog trainers in the country in 2009, got involved in dogs and reading programs more than four years ago when she co-founded the local Boys and Girls Club's Paws to Read program. She is no longer volunteering with the program, which is more about fun and group reading with dogs rather than individual tutoring of selected students.
Bird also trains many of the dogs participating in reading programs. She said the dogs range in all shapes and sizes, from a full-bred Papillon and Great Dane to mixed breeds.
"All the dogs have one thing in common," Bird said. "They are all certified therapy dogs under the Therapy Dogs International program."
Asia, and the other dogs, were required to go through training and a testing program that is based on behavior, temperament and obedience.
"Dogs are tested for working around the elderly, for example, working around children so they are not overly excited or aggressive with children. They also are tested to lay down on command, to stay, to come, to walk nicely on a leash, to go up to people for petting and loving," Bird said. "We also make sure they do not jump on people."
Students are not the only ones who gain confidence from the program. Dogs benefit, too.
"They love to be around the kids. They love the attention," Bird said. "What you see in most of these dogs, if the kids are not focused on what they are doing or become more playful or become aggregated, the dog becomes that way as well."