Immaculate Conception partners with SPCA for novel program

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

It’s a match made in canine heaven.

In a unique partnership launched on Oct. 1 with the Jefferson Parish SPCA, first through third graders at Immaculate Conception in Marrero read to shelter dogs twice a month at school during their library time.

The year-long program, dubbed “Read a Tale, Wag a Tail,” was inspired by research that shows that reading aloud improves students’ oral reading fluency, strengthens reading comprehension skills and boosts self-confidence.

And dogs, it turns out, make the perfect non-judgmental audience for young readers.

“It’s very awesome and entertaining to read to a dog. I have never known a dog that is hurtful,” said Jack Walker, an Immaculate Conception third grader, during the Oct. 23 visit to his school library of “Cambrie,” a female pit bull mix rescued from the streets of Harvey; and “Annie,” a black and white mutt that was surrendered to the SPCA by her owner.

“It’s fun and you got to pet them,” noted second grader Rylan Daigle of his canine reading partners. “I would rather read to a dog than (to) my friends, because the dogs are cuter.”

The students’ four-legged buddies benefit as well.

“When the dogs come back to the shelter after being read to, you can really see the difference in them,” marveled Dezzie Howe, the animal care attendant with the Jefferson Parish SPCA who facilitated the Oct. 23 visit, along with SPCA animal care officer Jordan Encalade.

“The dogs come back completely relaxed, they’re very friendly, and most of them are smiling – most people don’t realize that dogs can smile!” Howe said. “You’ll see their whole back jaw pull up.”

The visiting shelter dogs are pre-screened by the SPCA to make sure they are temperamentally fit to interact with children and other dogs. They are also “cat-tested” in advance – in the event they encounter a child or adult who might be throwing off a feline scent. All students must have signed parental permission to participate.

The gentle, even tones of the children’s reading voices quickly soothe and settle the listening dogs, Howe said.

“All of the dogs so far that we’ve brought in have behaved so well,” she said, noting that contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of dogs sheltered by the SPCA are not strays, but pre-owned pets just looking for a second chance at a home.

“The No. 1 excuse we hear is, ‘Moving. Can’t take with us,’” Howe said.

The program, which is thought to be the first of its kind in the greater New Orleans area, was initiated by Immaculate Conception kindergarten teacher Bridget Bourgeois, who had seen articles about similar programs elsewhere in the country in which children would actually travel to kennels to read to dogs.

“They discovered an increase in reading scores and reading fluency in the students who read to the dogs – because the dogs are not biased,” Bourgeois said. “They also saw a spike in adoption rates of the dogs that were being read to,” she added. “They were more socialized, so they tended to come to the front of the cages (and be seen).”

Bourgeois said the program has become such a hit, it might be expanded to give Immaculate Conception’s middle school students opportunities to practice their speeches in front of the shelter dogs.

Second grader Braelyn Bourgeois hailed the program for another reason.

“I think it’s good because (the dogs) are all the time locked up in the shelter, and this gets them out to have some space,” Braelyn said.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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