Layla Larsen’s voice used to tremble with fear every time she read aloud in front of people or even alone.
Now, the fourth-grade student at Sioux Trail Elementary in Burnsville can tackle chapter books with confidence thanks to Arthur, a therapy dog with Therapy Dog International’s Tail Waggin’ Tutors, a program that helps kids boost their reading skills.
“My reading improved a lot because at the start of the year it was kind of shaky,” Larsen, 9, said. “At the end, Arthur paws to me and I actually paw back because I enjoy reading to him.”
Placing well-trained therapy dogs in schools has become part of a national and global effort to help kids who struggle with reading build up their confidence and improve their literacy skills.
At Sioux Trail Elementary, the five-year-old English springer spaniel and his owner, Jan Rempher, of Burnsville, are at the school three days a week, providing one-on-one support to more than a dozen first-through-fifth-grade students. With a parent’s permission, teachers pick at least six students each day to read for 20 minutes with the Tail Waggin’ Tutors. In the last three years, the duo have clocked in nearly 300 volunteer hours. They also have won over many hearts.
At the start of the session, students select a book, sit on a dog-patterned blanket, curl up with Arthur and read. He lends a friendly ear, and doesn’t judge, Rempher said. After reading, he rewards them with a hug or a paw. The kids reciprocate and at times give him a treat. In addition to reading, Arthur has helped students overcome their fear of dogs.
“It’s really cool because the kids are all over the spectrum and are all sweet,” said Rempher, who quit her underwriting corporate job to do this and struggled with reading herself growing up. “Some of them have behavioral problems, some of them have reading problems and some of them have all kinds of different things going on in their lives. The more they read, the better they get and then they start feeling better about themselves and their self esteem gets better.”
Sharron Stalock, the resource teacher at Sioux Trail Elementary, said there are many literacy programs the school uses to boost reading, making quantifying students’ results from the Tail Waggin’ Tutor program difficult.
“We are looking to keep some reading relationships going next year, by having Jan and Arthur continue on with the same students to give continuity to students’ budding reading or continuity with the mentor relationship,” she said.
Shannon McParland, Sioux Trail Elementary principal said at a recent school assembly that Jan and Arthur have been “instrumental in this building” and presented them with a “John Coskran Award” for their volunteer service.
Fifth-graders Marianne Bundy and Tahir Peterson, who also spoke at the assembly, lauded Arthur and Jan for making their elementary experience memorable and comforting. In the next school year, Jan and Arthur plan to follow Bundy and Peterson to Metcalf Middle School. There, the duo will read with kids once a week.
“Jan and Arthur mean so much to me,” Bundy said. “They help me with my reading skills and anxiety and they make me happy every time I read with them.”
On a recent Tuesday morning at the school’s library, Larsen read “Hotel Bruce” to Arthur. His floppy ears pricked up every time he heard her playful melodic voice, keeping one eye shut as the other one bounced around. She laughed and giggled as she read to him about the grumpy bear whose den has been hogged by other creatures and turned into a hotel. All of it pleased Arthur, who stayed curled up next to Larsen.
“That’s what he does, it just makes him feel good,” Rempher said. “It’s pretty phenomenal to watch.”