Jeff Essayan and his 3-year-old golden retriever, Brody, are the first pet reading tutors in the newly established Tutors with Tails, a pilot reading program that connects certified therapy dogs with students struggling with literacy. “Both staff and students are excited about its potential,” said Harmony Armendariz, Site Coordinator at Minter Creek Elementary School for Communities in Schools of Peninsula .
Launched in partnership between the Peninsula School District and CISP, the growing awareness of the deep impacts animals can have on humans is increasing the use of therapy animals in a variety of therapeutic settings.
Across the country, certified therapy dogs like Brody are headed to school with their handlers as volunteer tutors.
“Brody knows we’re coming here as soon as we cross the bridge at Purdy,” Essayan said. “He gets really excited for this.” The two travel to Minter Wednesday afternoons to hear stories read aloud by students practicing their reading skills.
“We looked at students at the school who are below the reading standards and need extra help with reading,” Armendariz said. “We also considered the social-emotional component, so not only are we improving reading skills but we’re enhancing students social-emotional skills and well-being.”
It’s a one-hour session for two students in a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. One student reads for 30 minutes with a CISP reading mentor while the other reads aloud to Brody.
When a student spends time with the reading mentor, the experience is more interactive, with the opportunity for comprehension checks. The mentor gives feedback and encouragement.
Reading with Brody is different. Each student gets the time to read to the dog without feedback. There is a pad and blanket on the floor for both student and Brody, along with a squishy beanbag to get comfortable and ready for reading. It’s a free space, without judgment, to read as they will.
It doesn’t take long before the student is engaged, holding the book in one hand, while unconsciously reaching out toward the dog with the other for a pet or simple touch. Brody also settles into relaxation mode with an occasional upward gaze to Essayan for approval. If the student asks for help with a word, Essayan looks at the book, quietly answers, and the student goes straight back to reading without skipping a beat.
“It’s truly remarkable to watch,” Armendariz said. “We’re hoping that next year we can expand the program and offer this to other children. The therapeutic energy that pets provide—the love—I think that little moment really brightens a lot of days.”
Essayan and Brody completed rigorous training to become certified by Pet Partners, a Bellevue-based nonprofit that has trained animal handlers for over 40 years.to share an animal safely with others.
Brody also regularly visits people in hospitals and nursing homes. Essayan said his dog has a fan base of his own. A student recognized the dog in a hospital setting recently and came running up to him, saying, “Brody! I’m so glad to see you!”
For Essayan, volunteering with Brody is uniquely fulfilling. “Seeing the powerful bond children make with Brody and how quickly their reading confidence skyrockets is so rewarding,” he said. “It feels good to be able to make such a difference in a child’s life.”