By Anne Marie Amacher
DAVENPORT – Each Friday afternoon, Zoe and her handler walk through teacher Eileen O’Brien’s fifth-grade classroom doorway. Zoe, a border collie, spends 40 minutes with the All Saints Catholic School students as part of the Paws to Read program.
The international program engages therapy dogs as “good friends and listeners” for students, O’Brien said. Zoe, a certified therapy dog, is owned by All Saints’ visual arts teacher Elise Ward and her family.
In 2009 Ward brought Zoe to school for a pet blessing. Shortly after, Ward made a presentation to the All Saints staff about Zoe being a certified therapy dog. O’Brien kept that information in the back of her mind. Toward the end of the 2009-10 school year, O’Brien asked Ward if she and Zoe would come for a visit to O’Brien’s classroom. That visit was a hit and O’Brien continued the program until school let out.
O’Brien wanted to do Paws to Read for the full academic year, so she and Ward worked out a schedule for Zoe to visit each Friday.
Being a certified dog, Zoe enters the classroom wearing a bright red vest and an ID tag and is accompanied by Ward. Zoe sits down, and students surround her with their books and begin to read. Some read silently while others read directly to Zoe. The dog and her owner move from group to group scattered throughout the classroom.
This year, Ward and O’Brien instituted a rewards program. Students have been challenged to read books containing 70 or more pages. They are encouraged to read not just during Zoe’s visit, but at recess, after school, in the car, on vacation and any time they are waiting.
Students fill out slips as they read. For every 52 total slips turned in with a parent’s signature, the class earns a paw print to put on its “class bone.” When 10 paw prints have been accumulated, the class earns a pizza party. Along the way the students earn personalized bookmarks with a picture of Zoe on it, fun pencils, or they get to watch one of Zoe’s favorite Disney movies.
“Individuals’ reactions with a therapy dog release good endorphins and help to calm, relax and soothe students and adults alike,” Ward said.
O’Brien said the kids are excited when Zoe comes and interacts with the students. “We are so blessed.”
Other students see Zoe when she comes to school and they have class with Ward in her own classroom.
Fifth-grader Vy Dinh said, “I love it. Zoe is so adorable. She likes to be read to.”
Michael Lai said it’s nice to have something different in class, and Zoe’s presence is fun. He and fellow students Shannon McNeal and Janell Nguyen like to pet Zoe. All students said they love to read and that Zoe and the program push them to read more — in a fun way.