Biscuit Buddies

South Williamsport’s therapy dogs give students confidence

CARA MORNINGSTAR/Sun-Gazette Gavin Blanksby, third grader, reads to Ellie, the therapy dog, as Pat Peltier, outreach counseler and therapy dog handler, sits by during the Biscuit Buddies event at Central Elementary School in South Williamsport recently.

South Williamsport Area School District students get help or simply get practice learning to read to therapy dogs during an activity called Biscuit Buddies at Central Elementary school.

Once a month, therapy dogs come into the library during lunch. Students are able to eat their lunch in the library, and when they are finished, they pick out a book to read to the dogs.

“They either bring a book or get a book in the library,” said Pat Peltier, South Williamsport Area School District outreach counselor. “Then, they sit down and read to a dog.”

She said that the activity is beneficial to both students and the dogs.

“There’s a program that came out of the west called R.E.A.D., and the whole theory behind it was that kids can read to dogs,” she said. “Dogs are very nonjudgemental. Even kids who don’t read well or who falter or just have trouble reading, the dog doesn’t care.”

Of course, the dogs love it.

“They (the dogs) are just very appreciative of the attention,” she said. “What they’ve found is that utilizing therapy dogs increases kids abilities to read.”

She said she started the program years ago when she worked with the SPCA at local libraries, and she’s been encouraging programs involving children reading with therapy dogs ever since.

“Then we called it Puppy Pals, and it still goes on. When I came to South Williamsport, we had a variety of programs,” she said.

She said in the evenings, students often came in with parents who would attend meetings to help their children read.

“During that, the kids would read to the dogs, and it became a huge hit because the kids loved reading to dogs,” Peltier said. “It had the parents involved too, but that’s changed.”

She said now the program lets students do it during lunch break once a month, so it happens during the regular school day. The premise remains the same which allows students to gain confidence in their reading skills or simply to get extra practice in a relaxed, comfortable setting by reading to a dog out loud.

As far as which students get to read to the dogs, it changes every month, and teachers select students to be able to attend it each month.

“It varies. Every teacher has their own system. Sometimes we have kids in here who are doing very well, and it’s kind of like maybe they need some extra support for some reason. Maybe it’s just a reward to be with the dogs,” she said. “Other kids are chosen because they are struggling with reading.”

The wide range of students, some who need extra practice and some who just enjoy the chance to spend some time with a dog, feels positive for everyone at Central Elementary.

“It’s just a really rewarding experience,” she said. “It’s for every classroom, so every teacher of every classroom (at Central Elementary) chooses one student a month for Biscuit Buddies.”

She said the students always look forward to it.

The main dog who participates is Elli, Peltier’s own therapy dog, but other therapy dogs join in for the event when their handlers are able to bring them.

“It kind of builds on itself. There’s a group of people who work together and do visits to nursing homes, visits to hospitals … Once I had a connection with one of them, then they let other people (who own therapy dogs) know,” Peltier said.

When the other community therapy dogs are present, the students are allowed to choose which one they want to spend time with.

“It’s a very relaxed setting, and from what we know, the more relaxed we are — learning happens more easily. Stress just makes things difficult,” she said. “If you put a dog in a classroom, or you put a dog here in Biscuit Buddies, it’s a very calm experience … except when it’s just being silly and fun.”