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Skyline students earn special treat — reading to dogs

By Staff | Nov 2, 2011

Youngsters at Skyline Elementary School had the opportunity to read to dogs recently because of their achievements in the classroom during the Puppy Pals program.

Skyline Elementary School Principal Charles Vilardi said Puppy Pals has been offered to the students for the past eight years as an awards program for what they achieve in reading. He said it is a great program because it builds self-confidence in the students.

“A dog is an easy listener,” he said.

Reading Specialist Mendy Neslon said between six to 12 dogs visit the school every week for about an hour to allow the students to read to them. She said once the student is finished reading the book, they are allowed to sit and talk with the owner and pet the dog for a few minutes.

“They are faithful volunteers,” she said. “I can always count on them.”

Last Thursday morning seven volunteers brought their four legged companions, all registered with Therapy Dogs Inc., to the school. The dogs ranged in size from a Chihuahua to a Rhodesian ridgeback.

Margarite Thompson and her 13-year-old Lab, Harley, have been a part of the Puppy Pals program for the past seven years. She said she enjoys bringing her dog to the school because of the kids.

The program gives satisfaction to Thompson because she witnesses how well the students progress over time with their reading.

“The kids are so sweet,” she said. “They sit and pet the dogs, ask questions and it’s just fun.”

Scooter and his owner, Helene Okerstrom, have been attending the weekly program for three years. Okerstrom said she found Scooter in the parking lot of the Cape Coral Hospital and took him home to clean him and decided to keep him.

Okerstrom has participated in Puppy Pals since its inception with some of the other dogs she owns.

“I enjoy seeing how well the kids are doing,” she said, adding that Scooter is sometimes visited by the same student every year. “It is good for all of us. I enjoy our work.”

Puppy Pals is for kindergarten, first and second grade students, with the occasional invitation to upper classes when an opportunity arises. Nelson said two students per class receive a paper bone with their name on it when they meet their reading goal needed to participate in the program.

Lara Loring, second grade, has had the privilege of receiving the paper bone six times.

“It was very fun,” she said about reading “Tiger the Scaredy Cat” to Buddy last Thursday morning. “I like to just pet them and read.”

Lara scored a 100 percent on her AR test, which allowed her to take part in the program. She said she reads every night at home.

A photograph of every child reading to one of the dogs is taken during the Thursday morning visit to give to the student. Nelson said she has heard from many of the parents that they have added the Puppy Pals photo to their child’s album throughout the years.

“The kids enjoy reading to the dogs,” she said, adding that the program helps “get kids excited about reading and accomplishing a goal.”

Harley began his therapy work as a seeing eye dog many years ago and instead of discontinuing his service, he began going to schools, hospitals and nursing homes to continue to help others.

“I was looking to keep them busy,” Thompson said about her two Labs, Harley and Carrier, 8. “They like to work.”

This year, Nelson decided to add pictures of all the dogs who participate in Puppy Pals to the library’s wall, so students could remember their names a little better.