Evan Thompson / The Record — Zane Floyd, 8, reads a book to Ruby, a three-year-old parti poodle and therapy dog Reading with Rover. Nicholle Sargeant, 7, and handler LouAnn Hepp gently brushes Ruby’s fur.

Therapy dog helps South Whidbey Elementary School students read, relax

Students have come to know it as “Ruby Time.”

Aiden Moore, 7, knows exactly how long he gets to spend with Ruby, a three-year-old parti poodle and Reading with Rover trained therapy dog, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“21 minutes!” Moore exclaimed.

Ruby and her handler, LouAnn Hepp, visit with elementary school students every Tuesday and Thursday at Katharine Pfieffer’s classroom. The Redmond-based literacy program serves a variety of purposes, from giving students a relaxed environment to brush up their reading skills to cheering them up during an emotional day at school. It has been available for children who signed up for the program since October. The program is free for the South Whidbey School District, as Hepp volunteers her time.

Reading with Rover also brings comfort through dogs in hospitals, assisted living centers and colleges. She’s been a welcome addition to the school for seven-year-old Nicholle Sargeant.

“I feel happy when I come into Ms. Pfieffer’s room and see Ruby,” Sargent said.

During a visit on March 16, Ruby was the center of attention for several adoring students. The kids took turns reading to Ruby while others snuggled and brushed her fur. Ruby lay silently and calmly, almost appearing to be asleep. Her relaxed mood was a result of a simple rule that Pfieffer and Hepp have for students when they walk into the classroom.

“She’s (Ruby) very intelligent and perceptive,” Pfieffer said. “She’ll pick up on the kids’ mood and energy. If they’re all ramped up, we have to remind them to calm down.”

Pfieffer said the kids are highly motivated to follow the guidelines. When kids take Ruby for a walk, they must all listen carefully to directions and be thoughtful in their movements.

“It’s really good for kids who are wiggling and impulsive,” Pfieffer said. “They really need to slow down and pay attention.”

Dogs must be at least one year of age to qualify for the Reading with Rover program, Hepp said. After passing an evaluation, Hepp and Ruby also participated in several shadow visits and around 12 hours of mentored visits. A reevaluation is also required every two years.

Hepp, a Greenbank resident, said South Whidbey’s Reading with Rover program got on its feet when she contacted Linda Sax, South Whidbey School District’s special education director, who then connected her with elementary school Principal Jeff Cravy.

The operation appeared to be a well-oiled machine on March 16. While Hepp sat with Ruby and the kids, Pfieffer coordinated student visits. Hepp said she hopes to grow the program and invite more dogs into the reading program.

“My thought is that if we get enough interest on the island, we can have someone come here to do an initial workshop where people can bring their dogs to see if they have a potential therapy dog,” Hepp said. “I’m also hoping that with enough interest we can get a training program established here.”

Students record how many visits they’ve had with Ruby this year by placing puppy stickers on a sheet of paper. It was Rebeka McNeil’s 11th trip with Ruby on March 16. McNeil said she feels like Ruby is a warm and compassionate listener who she can confide her feelings in.

“I talk about how I’m doing,” said McNeil, 11. “If you’re having a bad day, or you feel sad, you can just pet Ruby.”

She “fixes me up,” McNeil added.

Zane Floyd, an 8-year old visiting Ruby for the very first time on March 16, said the dog had a different personality from his pets at home.

“She’s just calm,” Floyd said. “…I’m more relaxed here with Ruby.”

While students are calmed by Ruby, Moore noticed that the effects work both ways.

“If you read more, she just relaxes more,” Moore said.

Hepp said it’s a cool feeling to hear how much kids are affected by Ruby’s presence.

“There’s nothing better than volunteering with a dog,” Hepp said. “Kids will do a lot of things for dogs that they don’t necessarily want to do for adults. Lots of times kids will come in here that had a problem on the playground and come in crying and they need to debrief what happened. It’s much easier to talk about when you’re petting a dog.”

Cravy said it has been an “amazing program” for helping advance the reading skills of students. While there is currently no data available to show whether or not kids have made noticeable improvements in their reading scores, the program has helped students overcome their personal struggles, Cravy said.

“Not only has it encouraged reluctant readers, but it has really helped some of our students that have other personal struggles to center themselves for the day,” Cravy said. “Students see Ruby as a calm, safe and comforting presence when they are reading to her, which is an immense help to students who are behind in reading and are reluctant to read on front of others.”

There is also another similar “life skills” program at Langley Middle School, where Ruby and Hepp meet with students on Tuesdays at 1:15 p.m.

Hepp said that more dog and handler teams are needed to expand the program’s capabilities. For those interested, contact Hepp at 425-444-0819 or la@vistadx.net.

Evan Thompson / The Record — Ruby, a three-year-old parti poodle, is a trained community service dog with literacy program Reading with Rover.

Evan Thompson / The Record — Students keep track of how many visits they’ve had with Ruby by placing stickers on a worksheet.

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