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Getting in the HABIT: Reading program to bring dogs into schools

It appears reading will soon be going to the dogs at some Washington County schools.
At a meeting held in late fall, members of Human-Animal Bond In Tennessee out of Knoxville spoke with school leaders about a program that brings dogs into schools to encourage students to read more.
HABIT, a group that sponsors programs that foster pet visitation to nursing homes, assisted-living residences, retirement centers, mental health and other facilities, also offers a Ruff Reading Program, in which trained dogs serve as eager listeners for children learning to read.
“We want to do this to improve reading skills and give kids more confidence,” said Jerry Story, assistant principal at Gray School. “Our teachers are really excited. I think this could be a great benefit. In some cases, they’re actually reading to the dog where they might not read to the teacher.”
Angela Morelock, of Knoxville, and her 5-year-old dog, Margarita, know first-hand what the Ruff Reading Program and its four-legged stars can do for young students learning to read.
“I see a lot of increase in their self-esteem when they are reading to her,” Morelock said. “She doesn’t correct them. She doesn’t judge them. And if they don’t feel like reading, they can just show her the pictures and tell her a story of their own.”
Having been a part of the program for the last three years, Margarita, a Great Dane/black Labrador mix, even gives kids a high-five when they finish reading.
“The kids just love that,” Morelock said. “They can’t wait to get that high-five.”
HABIT formed in 1986, serving Knox County and eight surrounding counties throughout the last 24 years. It has offered the Ruff Reading Program in the Knoxville area since 2001.
The organization came to Jonesborough in hopes of getting enough interest to set up shop in Washington County and a few surrounding counties.
Brooke Britton, of Jonesborough, attended the meeting to learn more about volunteering with her dog, Scout.
“I’ve always been interested in therapeutic animals,” Britton said. “She really loves kids and has a great personality.”
Britton, also a school counselor at Jonesborough Middle School, said she is in favor of the Ruff Reading Program and hopes the therapy dogs could also be used to help with behavior issues in children as well as socialization issues.
“I want to be the advocate for this program in my school,” Britton said. “Lots of middle school students are really concerned about the judgment of others. Animals are non-judgmental. It would help the kids a lot.”
Currently, the Ruff Reading Program serves students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. However, HABIT leaders said the dogs have been involved in special needs classrooms for all age groups.
“Ruff Reading is academic, but it’s also social and emotional support,” said Ruth Sapp, East Tennessee program coordinator for HABIT. “The dog can be there, panting, looking into the eyes of a child and that is all it takes. That is the magic of the school program — for a kid to feel loved no matter what.”
Nearly 40 people attended the fall meeting, many of whom were interested in training their dogs, cats or rabbits to be HABIT animals.
That training process can take several months. However Washington County school officials are hopeful to have the program in schools that wish to take part sometime this school year.
“Having a dog in a room just gives that room a whole different feel. It can really lighten the mood,” said Dr. Karla Kyte, assistant director of schools. “If it will motivate a child to read more or take more of an interest in school, then we are willing to try it.”