Reading goes to the dogs at Morgan County Primary School
By Meg Ferrante
Students in Tonya Malcom’s second grade early-intervention reading class are enjoying a soggy reception to their reading skills.
Each child gets to take a turn a week reading to Molly, a golden retriever therapy dog. Three wags and a big, sloppy lick is just Molly’s way of saying, “great job!”
After seeing an evening news program on kids reading to therapy dogs, Malcom started researching a local connection. She found one through Madison resident Chris Brandon, a dedicated volunteer with the international charity Canine Assistants. Canine Assistants, based in Alpharetta, trains service dogs free of charge to be helpmates for children and adults with special needs.
Brandon has worked for years to get in with the school as it gives the therapy dogs a chance to practice their skills while at the same time helps a large group of kids work on their skills, too. When second grade teacher Malcom talked to him about working with her class, he and Molly were more than ready.
“It’s an ultra-successful program,” Brandon said. “When I tell people the kids come and read to the dog, they roll their eyes like ‘what a bunch of California woo-woo.’ But it’s incredible to sit and watch these kids not only read, but just tie in so strongly to the dog that they’re oblivious to the world. I can’t tell you the number of times the kids turn the page and for whatever reason, the picture grabs them so they turn it around and put it in the dog’s face to show her.”
Brandon said his months of work in the classroom reinforces for him the reality that the program works. “The kids connect to Molly’s presence and focus their energy toward her even though we are located within a busy classroom that can be pretty loud.” He gives Malcom a lot of credit for keeping the other children engaged while waiting their turn and since he’s only there once a week, he believes she also deserves a lot of credit for the improvement he sees each visit. “There are improved skills with almost every child we see. About 50 percent of them have moved from multi word sentences to fairly complex paragraphs.”
Malcom has many techniques for bringing her students up to grade level in reading, but Molly has been her best received idea by far. “The kids can’t wait for Molly to get here,” Malcom said. “If she can’t make it, they are so disappointed.” One of her students asked to keep a book because it was “Molly’s favorite” and she reported that many of her kids are now reading to their dogs at home, too.
Brandon is hoping his work with Malcom’s class will be a springboard to future opportunities for him and Molly, a therapy dog he bought and had trained to use as a public relations ambassador for Canine Assistants. Another first grade teacher has expressed interest in bringing Molly in to the classroom. “Hopefully, this will stimulate some of the folks in other Morgan County schools to investigate what we offer–a great service to the area that is completely free and productive. It is a complete win-win for everyone,” he said.
As part of the outreach for the charity, Brandon and Molly also make presentations to schools and civic groups on disability awareness. These types of events plus her work at the school give Molly lots of practice doing what as a helpmate she has to be able to do best: lie down and be quiet.
For more information check out www.canineassistants.org. To schedule a local event, contact Chris Brandon at (706) 342-7470.