Students at Love Creek Elementary School in Lewes always enjoy spending time on Tuesdays with dogs, from the Literacy Education Assistance Pups program, who sit calmly at their sides as they read their favorite stories.
In recent weeks, those morning meet-ups have become even more exciting thanks to the presence of two bona fide celebrities – Kelsey, a golden retriever who comforted children and families after the 2018 Parkland, Fla. school shooting, and Cassie, a chocolate Labrador retriever who took her healing talents to Las Vegas following the violence outside the Mandalay Hotel the year before.
The addition of the two pups marks another milestone for the L.E.A.P. program, which was founded in 2004 and currently supports young readers at more than 20 locations in Milton, Lewes, Rehoboth, Milford, Harbeson, Greenwood, Georgetown, Felton and Bridgeville. The program offers an alternative to reading in class, where students may feel or imagine judgment from other kids, and it helps children relax as they work to strengthen their reading skills.
While L.E.A.P. is always on the lookout for pet partner teams with people who volunteer to participate alongside their dogs, Kelsey and Cassie have earned their star status through their role in the Tri-State Canine Response Team. Through Tri-State, the highly trained dogs provide emotional support to victims of violence and disaster, primarily in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. They also travel to different locations around the U.S. to respond to major public safety incidents.
For Gail Hamman, a “dog-mom” to Cassie, working with L.E.A.P. came at the perfect time in the Labrador’s storied career. “When we moved to Lewes, I needed to find something for Cassie to do, because at 10 years old she’s slowed up a little. At one of our first reading sessions, we sat with a little girl who had a black lab at home. Cassie laid her head on the child’s lap and let the book rest on her head. As a former school nurse, I loved seeing the calming impact and watching how well she read as a result,” said Hamman.
Ruth Osman, who brings golden retriever Kelsey to the L.E.A.P. sessions, said, “What L.E.A.P. does is great. Reading is the key to success and self-esteem, and unfortunately students who have reading issues tend not to participate as much in school. Just reading to a dog that’s not judgmental helps kids feel better about themselves, and makes them less apt to get into trouble and be part of a crisis later in their lives.”
Research from the Tufts Institute for Human Animal Interaction found that second-grade students who read aloud to dogs in an afterschool program demonstrated markedly improved attitudes about reading. Annmarie Blair, who conducted research on cardiac care patients for her doctorate from West Chester University, found interactions with therapy dogs twice a week for 12 weeks reduced levels of depression among the patients by 90 percent.
That’s good news to educators who want to expand opportunities for reading alongside therapy dogs, including Love Creek Reading Specialist Rosemary Lobodzinski. For the past seven years, she has collaborated with Cape district teachers to identify students who can benefit most from participation in the L.E.A.P. program.
“Honestly, it all goes back to that love of reading,” said Lobodzinski, at the end of a session that included Cassie and Kelsey along with a shih tzu, an Australian shepherd and a Cairn terrier. “You can see they’re engaged in the stories when they talk about the books, so the comprehension piece is built in. The excitement they feel when they see the dogs carries over into excitement about reading.”
L.E.A.P. partner teams volunteered more than 1,400 hours to support young readers at libraries, schools and community centers in 2019. Based on responses from educators, students and families, Communications Coordinator Emily Eider expects the program to expand in 2020.
“L.E.A.P. is continually seeking out new sites where there are children who can benefit from our program,” she said. “We’re always eager to work with new organizations that share our enthusiasm for reading and dogs.”
For more information, go to www.leaptherapydog.com.