Were you to go to Cleveland School on a Wednesday afternoon, you might be greeted with wagging tails and curious sniffing. Not from the students, but from the therapy-dog teams from the new read-to-a-dog program called Animals + Reading = Fun! — or ARF!
ARF! looks just how it sounds: students sit with a certified therapy dog and the animal's human companion and read a book to them. The program is a part of All For Animals, a nonprofit organization that specializes in education for the humane treatment of animals.
While the idea of a read-to-a-dog program might be new to us in Santa Barbara, there are many successful read-to-a-dog programs all over the country.
The founder of ARF! and All for Animals, Karen Lee Stevens, got the idea to develop a read-to-a-dog program in Santa Barbara a year ago after seeing a read-to-a-dog program story on the news.
"It actually originated in Salt Lake City," Stevens said, "and it was obviously very popular when it launched."
Before she even heard of a read-to-a-dog program, Stevens was quite busy already. All for Animals was making presentations in the classroom on how to properly care for pets. Stevens had also published a children's' book, Animals Have Feelings, Too!, to promote literacy and the humane treatment of animals.
Despite the numerous ways that All for Animals was reaching many kids, Stevens felt like something was missing.
"I really felt like there was more we could be doing," she said. "I got together with Andrea Bratt, a certified dog trainer from the area. We sat down at the Montecito Starbucks and we just started penciling out ideas right there on a couple of napkins."
After that initial meeting, Bratt held a therapy dog-training class to recruit therapy dog teams for the program. Out of the nine teams that completed therapy dog training with Bratt, six teams went on to be part of ARF's pilot program, which launched in February at Hope School.
After the pilot program ended in May, Stevens put together a simple survey and compiled student standardized test scores from Accelerated Reader (AR) and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). In the full report of these findings, which can be found on the All for Animals website, it was shown that students who participated in ARF! had improved their reading accuracy by 80 percent or higher, as determined by DIBELS.
The question you might be asking is, "Why does this work?"
While the dogs may not be listening all that much, their presence is important. Kids who are reluctant to read with their parents or teachers because they fear making a mistake are more likely to warm up to their furry friends, according to Stevens.
"Dogs don't care!" Stevens said. "They're happy to get a tummy rub and listen to a story."
This fall, ARF! was present in Cleveland, Harding and McKinley schools in the Santa Barbara Unified School District's After-School Education and Safety Programs (ASES/A-OK). These schools are classified as Title I schools, meaning that through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they receive a grant for extra educational assistance programs to support educationally at-risk students. There are seven Title I schools in Santa Barbara.
"We are not just an after-school activity," Stevens said. "We are here to promote literacy."
The sentiment seems to be translating into the students' improved test scores. While Stevens' impact on the children with whom she works is apparent in the improved test scores, she claims the program doesn't "change the face of education at all!"
"All we want to do is motivate and inspire these kids," she said. "One day after a session, one little boy came up to me and said, 'That's the first time I've ever read a whole book!' and it was just incredible to see how happy he was."
Not only do the students enjoy the program, it also has received a tremendous amount of financial support from private donors and Santa Barbara Partners in Education. While the therapy dog teams get a break for the holidays, Stevens has big plans for 2014. She hopes to include a graduate school candidate in the project for further research on the effectiveness of read-to-a-dog programs. Stevens also hopes to expand the program to all seven Title I schools in the area and eventually reach every school in Santa Barbara.
At the rate at which ARF! is expanding, Stevens will definitely reach these goals in no time.