Seattle Public Schools

Paw-sitive Reinforcement  

Summary: Wedgwood’s Reading with Rover program helps kids discover the joy of reading.

Penny strolled into the Wedgwood Elementary library looking for a friend to help her celebrate her birthday. She made her way around the room, making friend after friend before settling on the reading carpet. But Penny is not a student – she’s a reading service dog. 

In November, Wedgwood Elementary implemented an innovative program where students gain confidence and improve their reading skills by reading to specially trained service dogs. Penny, a black-haired pooch with a calm demeanor, and her other furry friends come to the school throughout the month to serve as good listeners. Students spend 10-15 minutes each Thursday or Friday reading to one of the dogs. 

Wedgwood student in pink reads to Penny the dog.

The Reading with Rover program provides students who may be struggling with reading the opportunity to read aloud to the dogs in a one-on-one setting. The program involves certified therapy dogs and their handlers visiting the school regularly. The calming presence of the dogs helps alleviate anxiety and fear of judgment, allowing students to focus on improving their reading skills without the pressure of an audience.   

Kristi Leland, the school’s teacher-librarian, brought the program to Wedgwood after several years of trying and efforts stalled by the pandemic. She worked closely with the school’s reading support teacher to identify students who were reading below grade level and needed a boost. They started with eight kids. The program has now expanded to 25 at-risk students and even a few who simply enjoy reading. 

Wedgwood student in black reads to Penny the Reading with Rover dog

“Early on, we started with the kids who were struggling [with reading], but … we’ve noticed some kids who maybe struggle with confidence in class or anxiety issues, they really love to come in and read too,” Leland said. “We’ve expanded it to where if a teacher says, ‘I think so and so could really use a few weeks of Reading with Rover,’ we make it happen.” 

According to the district’s strategic plan, the first academic goal is that all students become strong readers by the end of third grade, which is when most students make the leap from learning to read to reading to learn. Reading well by the end of third grade is a critical benchmark for students and significantly increases their likelihood of future success in both reading and other subject areas.     

Wedgwood student in pink leggings reads to Penny the dog.

Principal Christy Smith is an advocate for creative and effective teaching methods. She is pleased with the effect the program is having on her students. Since Wedgwood implemented the Reading with Rover program, Smith has witnessed great gains in students’ reading skills. 

“When students first began reading to the dogs, they were nervous, not sure what to do, and often felt self-conscious about voicing the words they see on pages of their books,” Smith said. “Many students would get stuck with selecting just the right book because they do not feel confident reading aloud or have a fear of judgement.” 

Smith said parents are also excited about the program as students have taken to reading to their family pets.  

“I have had a parent stop me and say they now hear their child reading aloud to the family dog, quietly tucked away in their bedroom,” Smith said. “I had another parent mention that since their child started Reading with Rover, she now walks around the house reading aloud all the time. In the past, the student would NEVER read aloud at home.” 

Wedgwood student in a blue shirt reads to Penny the dog.

As the program continues to positively impact the students of Wedgwood Elementary, Principal Smith hopes to expand similar initiatives that cater to diverse learning styles and individual needs. 

“With each passing week, the dogs have been reminding students of their brilliance and capabilities by removing the barriers of fear and judgment and replacing them with acceptance, confidence, and comfort,” Smith said. “The dogs truly seem to know exactly what each student needs, and they create the space to meet the students where they are.”  

About Reading with Rover 

The Reading with Rover program is now in six school districts in Washington state. The benefits children experience reading to dogs include: 

  • An increased comfort in reading aloud 
  • The achievement of higher reading levels 
  • More empathy and enhanced social skills 
  • Improved confidence and less shyness 

Reading with Rover also provides reading sessions at libraries and bookstores around the Pacific Northwest. Several times each month, dogs can be found in the children’s section of bookstores. This is also a great opportunity for people who want to volunteer with their well-mannered pooch and only have evening or weekend hours available to participate. 

Penny the dog licks Wedwood student in pink shirt.