Submitted By Madison Lozano
Ten-year-old Ally, a fifth-grader at Startzville Elementary, didn’t always love reading. But since joining the Canine Classmates program, her skills have improved and she even passed the STAAR reading exam. “I didn’t like reading before, but now I’m starting to,” she said with a smile. “Crockett is chill. Once you pet him, he calms you down and relaxes you.” Crockett is one of four Newfoundland dogs in Canine Classmates, a non-profit founded eight years ago by Donna Dishman, executive director.
“We started at Goodwin Frazier and there has been such a growth and demand,” Dishman said. She and two other handlers spend their time traveling across Comal County, providing one-on-one 30-minute sessions weekly for Comal ISD elementary students. The sessions start with students bringing books from their classrooms. The youngsters read to the dogs, helping the dogs “understand” the story. Dishman or another handler is always nearby to aid in pronunciation or comprehension of the text.
“Literacy is a huge issue,” Dishman said. “We need something to propel kids towards reading. With the dogs, the kids work harder, they’re more relaxed and it increases their self-esteem.”
Teachers hand-select students to participate based on their individual needs. “The dog is the mechanism,” Dishman said. “They provide nonjudgmental reading partners for the child.” Canine Classmates currently sees 200 kids annually, while aiming to increase that number next year.
Not only do the children’s reading skills improve, but they learn good dog behavior and watch the pups grow as they build relationships with them throughout the year. Comal ISD students were even given the privilege of choosing the names for Dante, Crockett, Theodore and Einstein, said fourth-grader Tyler. “Sometimes I read to the dogs at my grandma’s house. I’m getting better at reading and spelling,” he said.
Elizabeth, a second-grader, reads to Dante every Thursday. “First we read, then we play,” she said. “My favorite part is when we get to give him treats. Dante likes me to read to him.” Elizabeth has gotten so excited about books that she now reads to her three-year-old cousin at home. “I’m excited to come to school and do this instead of staying in a cooped up classroom,” she said.
In addition to its in-school program, Canine Classmates participates in programs at the McKenna Children’s Museum and the Pilot Club of Canyon Lake. “It’s a partnership with the teachers and schools. We just love what we do and are so appreciative of the support of CISD” Dishman said. She has found that participants’ attendance even improves, as students don’t want to miss a session with their favorite pup pal. “The kids look forward to it,” Dishman said. “We want to instill a love of reading. They can take it home and extend it into their summer break too.”
For more information on Canine Classmates, visit www.canineclassmates.org.