By Celine Klosterman
DEWITT — When Drew McNamara and Skylar Bloom gathered earlier this month to read a book on animals, they had a special audience. He’s a patient listener, doesn’t judge anyone’s performance and never tries to correct them.
The fact that he’s a dog was just icing on the cake for the two fourth-graders at St. Joseph School.
“He just lays down and listens,” Drew said of Joey, a Goldendoodle who’s helped out in classrooms since the beginning of this school year. Reading to him is easier than reading to a person, Drew said, because you don’t feel as if you have to make your voice reflect characters’ emotions — you can focus just on reading the printed words.
Joey’s potential benefit to young students was largely what Lori Holst, enrichment teacher and computer instructor, had in mind when she sent her pet to Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education & Services training this summer in Concordia, Kan. There he became certified as a professional therapy and assistance dog, and since then, he’s come to school with Holst daily.
Holst got Joey after her previous dog died. She wanted a dog she could bring to school so it wouldn’t have to be home alone all day. So she researched how a dog might be useful in education, and then chose a gentle breed that doesn’t shed and thus wouldn’t aggravate students’ allergies. After getting to know St. Joe’s in a “limited capacity” last year, Holst said, Joey’s now lending students a helping paw.
With the nonjudgmental dog for an audience, some students who don’t often enjoying reading aloud open up. “A kid who hates to read will beg to be able to do it,” Holst said. “With Joey, it’s an honor to be chosen.”
Three times a week, some kindergarteners through fifth-graders visit Holst’s classroom to spend 10 minutes reading to Joey. While they’re there, some students practice speaking the letter “s” by giving him “sit” or “stay” commands. And on the less academic side, a few students and a teacher occasionally calm down by giving Joey a massage.
The 18-month-old canine has become one of St. Joe’s most popular community members. When he’s out for a haircut, the school announces he’s gone because otherwise students ask all day where he is, Holst said. He even joins them for Mass.
Mary Mosier, fourth-grade teacher, said that when she tells a pair of her students it’s their turn to read to Joey, “I usually get a soft, enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ and a big smile is exchanged between the two students.”
“My daughter loves to see Joey at school,” fifth-grade teacher Patty Tarchinski said of her fourth-grade daughter, Elise Tarchinski. “She says he brings a smile to her face because he is so friendly and calm.” That reaction “sets the stage” for a positive attitude toward school and others, Patty Tarchinski said.
Welcoming Joey into the school “has been one of the best things we’ve done,” said Chris Meyer, principal.