KINGSTON, R.I. –April 2, 2007—He’s tall, dark, and very handsome. When he strides into Room 12 at Fishing Cove School in North Kingstown, all heads turn. He stops at his blanket placed on the floor, turns, and looks at 23 wide-eyed third graders in Barbara Montecalvo’s class.
His owner, Doris Kirchner, a German professor at the University of Rhode Island, signals him to lie down. This gentle, 136-pound Great Dane named Sharif obeys.
Soon students, one at a time, begin reading books to their furry “reading coach.” The first student, 10-year-old David McLemore begins reading Snowshoe Thompson hesitantly and softly. By the second chapter, David’s voice has become louder and he’s reading more confidently. At one point, Sharif places his paw on David’s arm.
“Reading researchers have found that children who are normally hesitant to read actually enjoy reading to a dog,” explains Kirchner. “While therapy dogs have long been used in hospitals, senior centers, and as service animals, the idea of using them for reading is relatively new.”
Kirchner quickly points out that while Sharif has not been trained as a therapy dog, he was evaluated by a professional trainer representing Therapy Dogs International for his stints as a reading dog at the West Bay YMCA after school program in North Kingstown. Owner and dog have been helping children there for the past two years.
Sharif easily passed the evaluations. He obeyed commands, remained as calm as Ferdinand the bull when other dogs were introduced, he did not suffer separation anxiety when Kirchner left the room. The gentle giant did not blink an eyelid when a big metal door was slammed behind him or when young children surrounded him.
Back at Fishing Cove School, David is reading Chapter 4 when Emily Sleve, who is subbing for Mrs. Montecalvo, stops him. Sleve notes that students not only appear more confident they read longer when they are reading to a dog.
David takes his seat. “I thought it went well,” the youngster says. “I think he liked it. He was listening well.”
Emily Bailey reads portions of More Surprises. “He liked it,” she says. When asked why she thought so, she replied with all the assurance of a 9-year-old: “ When he got up and looked right here,” she says holding her hand a few inches away from her face. When asked if she had any pets, Emily said she had three: a fish named Fishy, a rabbit named Dede, and a hermit crab named Pinchy.
The URI professor was asked why she volunteers her time to these types of programs. “I love teaching and reading and I love animals. It just makes sense,” she said, adding that she hopes others who read this article might also want to volunteer to help a child read.
Two third graders at Fishing Cove School in North Kingstown spontaneously escort Sharif, the reading dog, into their classroom. URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.
Sharif, the reading dog, places his paw on Fishing Cove School third grader David McLemore. URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.
Sharif, the reading dog, and his owner, URI German Professor Doris Kirchner of East Greenwich, listen as third grader Emily Bailey reads. URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.