By Jennifer Gallus
HOWARD LAKE, MN “It really seems like she’s listening,” said a teenage boy at the Village Ranch group home and school for adolescent boys in Cokato, regarding his experience reading to therapy dog Penny Sideen.
Penny is owned by Neil and Carol Sideen of Howard Lake, who have been taking her to various schools, nursing homes, libraries, childcare facilities, and more since she graduated from the Delta Society Therapy Dog class last June.
Depending upon location, Penny can either perform therapy dog duties or READ dog assistance.
READ stands for Reading Education Assistance Dog.
“Therapy dogs trained as READ dogs help young readers improve their skills by listening to them read aloud with a non-judgmental ear,” Neil said.
“By offering friendship and a warm touch, animals help alleviate loneliness, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress,” Neil wrote in a recent report about adolescents and READ dogs.
The Sideens have taken Penny to many elementary schools in the area, and are a regular part of the curriculum at Humphrey Elementary in Waverly.
However, the Sideens wanted to observe the interaction between adolescent boys and their therapy dog.
Neil works as a substitute teacher at the Village Ranch Alternative School, which is why the couple chose to approach the school.
Summer school at the ranch consists of 15 days of academics in the month of June, with three hours of school and three hours of work each day, according to Village Ranch program site coordinator Karen Jarshaw. Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services funds the summer work program.
The middle and high school-age boys have a summer break from school in the months of July and August.
Students chosen to read with Penny were those who are having difficulty reading out loud or those who have difficulty with fluency and comprehension, Jarshaw explained.
Two groups of boys were chosen to read with Penny at the ranch. Because summer school is a short period of time, only two sessions per group were conducted, as well as one “combined” session.
The sessions lasted up to 30 minutes with each boy, Neil explained, and part of the second session included activities with Penny, such as fetch and giving her commands to sit, roll, and shake.
“Each boy was eager to be with Penny and worked very well with her,” Neil reported. “In three of the five sessions, the boy began reading in a jumpy manner, but that soon evened out. In all cases, the boys reported that the act of petting Penny helped them calm down and focus on reading.”
In fact, the proper way for a student to read with a READ dog is to pet the dog while reading, Carol explained.
Penny will even look at a picture if a reader will point to the picture and say, “Look,” Carol added.
“We knew that the sessions were not long enough to help the boys improve their level of reading,” Neil said. “Rather, we wanted to know if the contact with Penny through touch and activity would help the boys focus and improve their comprehension. We believe that the READ therapy activity did this.”
“The boys love Penny,” Jarshaw said. “Penny is non-judgemental, and the boys feel more confident reading out loud to her.”
The boys expressed sadness that Penny would not be back again this summer. However, Jarshaw said that the school is considering adding Penny to the school’s regular program this school year.
“Some of the staff members reported that they listened-in in an adjoining room to hear the boys read,” Neil said. “They were impressed with the improvement in reading that the boys displayed.”
“When you have a stuttering problem when you read,” one of the students said, “and you read to Penny, your words just flow out.”
“I felt more comfortable,” reading with Penny, another student said, “I want her to come back.”
Penny was trained at Leader of the Pack in Buffalo.