By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN A special four-legged friend visited a Cokato Elementary first grade classroom Tuesday to help motivate and excite students for reading as part of “I Love to Read Month.”
Penny is a 2-year-old border collie owned by Carol and Neil Sideen of Howard Lake.
The Sideens and Penny have received training through the Leader of the Pack Canine Center in Buffalo. Through the program, Penny became a registered Delta Society therapy dog.
As a therapy dog, the couple volunteered their time taking Penny to visit residents at local nursing homes.
“It’s amazing to see,” Carol said of the smiles on the residents’ faces while interacting with Penny.
Shortly after becoming a registered therapy dog, the couple heard about the Reading Education Assistance Dogs or READ program.
The program is said to improve children’s reading and communication skills by being able to read to a trained READ dog.
Of course, the dogs themselves can’t read, but they can help relax and comfort young readers in a non judgemental and fun way.
Having been a first grade teacher herself, Carol thought this would be a great way for her and Neil to spend their retirement helping others, especially young readers.
With Carol having taught Cokato’s first grade teacher Sam Weber when he was a first grader in Howard Lake, they both thought it was a great opportunity to share Penny with his students.
It’s a great incentive to get kids excited about reading, Weber said.
Cokato Elementary Principal Lorene Force also is in favor of the READ program.
“I think it’s wonderful to help kids relax and practice reading,” Force said.
Along with being comfortable while reading, fluency is also a big part of it.
“The more fluent a child is, it increases their comprehension of what they’re reading,” Force said.
According to Intermountain Therapy Animals, a non profit organization that launched READ in 1999, reading is more about overcoming fears rather than intellectual limitations.
Reading to fully-trained READ dogs can help readers relax while lowering blood pressure because the dogs listen attentively, do not judge, laugh or criticize; allow children to read at their own pace, and are less intimidating than peers.
During Tuesday’s visit, Weber’s students each had the opportunity to read a small book to Penny.
While reading, the trainers use different techniques to encourage students when necessary.
Neil shared a story he remembered of a young boy who was struggling to read. When the boy was ready to give up, Neil said to him, “Penny thinks you should read it.”
The boy responded, “Well, if she thinks so, I guess I better.”
Though not fully trained, Penny will one day be able to sit and look at the book the child is reading.
“It’s all geared toward rewarding the kids for reading,” Neil said.
After the students read their books to Penny, each received a sticker that said, “I read to Penny today!” with a picture of their teacher, Mr. Weber, reading to Penny.
Each week, Penny and her owners are in a Waverly classroom working one-on-one with students of which the majority are a grade level below in their reading ability.
Penny also continues to visit local nursing homes, as well.
Since the couple is testing out the program with Penny in Waverly, a weekly reading program in Cokato Elementary is unlikely at this time.However, Penny will continue to visit, though next time focusing more on struggling readers, Carol said.
Along with elementary schools and nursing homes, Penny also visits libraries, health care facilities, preschool and childcare facilities, and more.
To inquire about a visit from Penny, contact Carol and Neil Sideen at (320) 543-2546.
The Sideens are also looking for more dog owners who are willing to go through the training and volunteer their time as they do.
“If they have a dog and they see they are good with people so many people love volunteering and it can involve children and the whole family . . . It’s so rewarding,” Carol said, encouraging others to go through the READ training program.
For more information about therapy animals, check out www.mntherapyanimals.com.