Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

June 1, 2010

Pawing through some pages

Lady gives kindergartners tail-wagging support for reading

Mike James
The Independent

ARGILLITE — Lady is a good reading companion if you want one who sits quietly, sometimes thumps her tail during the good parts, and gives you a high-five at the end of the page.

She also is a chocolate Labrador retriever.

Lady came to Argillite Elementary Tuesday with her owner, Tammy Ballard, and spent part of the afternoon in the library, where three kindergartners read stories to her.

It was part of an experiment that the school hopes to expand into a morning reading program when school starts in the fall, according to principal Tom Crump.

Ballard is the mother of a fourth-grader, a substitute teacher’s aide and director of the school 4-H club, the County Kids.

Lady, 10, is the family dog, who already knows Argillite and some of the kids there from previous visits.

Together, they are a team — both went through training to make Lady a reading assistance education dog. Lady’s job is to provide an audience for children to read aloud to.

Research has shown that reading to dogs is helpful to some kids with reading difficulties or low self-esteem. Furry pets just naturally make kids more comfortable, so when they read to the dog, instead of to a grownup, they forget about their limitations, become more relaxed, and lose their inhibitions.

Ballard said she learned about the concept while she was cleaning in the barn with the radio on. A program about the reading assistance dogs caught her ear.

Hearing that the assistance dogs helped raise test scores, Ballard looked at Lady and thought, “I bet our dog could do that.”

“We’ve had her since she was a year old and she’s always been smart and easy to train,” she said.

The next step was a training program in Lexington at which evaluators determined Lady had the right temperament for the job.

It takes a few simple commands. The dog has to be able to sit and lie down, since its main function is as a sounding board for the reading children.

Lady did learn one trick — the high-five, which she offers on Ballard’s command when each child finishes reading.

On Tuesday, kindergartners Hailey Lambert, Levi Brown and Faylicia Wright sat in a corner of the school library with Ballard and Lady and took turns reading. It was just a first look and the children were as interested in petting Lady as they were in reading.

School is almost out for the year but in the fall, Crump said, Ballard and Lady will come back for a more formal tryout, reading with individual children. “I see an opportunity, another avenue to getting our reading scores up.”