BALTIMORE -- The gray and white pit bull sat in the center of the circle of fifth-graders. He listened attentively as the students took turns reading to him. At times, his droopy eyes appeared to lock with those of the readers.
Four-year-old Knox is one of the "pet ambassadors" who travel to Westport Academy Elementary/Middle School every Tuesday to listen to students read as part of an effort to improve their reading skills and boost their self-esteem.
Organizers say practicing reading with dogs promotes confidence among students who may struggle to read at grade level. The Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of the country's oldest animal welfare groups, has been working with the school since January.
"I was one of those kids growing up that reading out loud was scary for me," said Katie Flory, the Maryland SPCA's community affairs director. "A lot of the kids here feel the same way. But with the dogs, they don't have to worry about that. They're not being judged."
Similar programs are catching on in animal shelters and schools across the country.
Less than 5 percent of students at Westport passed the English Language Arts portion of the statewide assessments last year. Flory said it's too early to measure what impact reading to dogs might have on test scores. But Principal Melody Locke said it has already influenced the culture in the South Baltimore school.
"I can say that interest in reading has definitely increased," she said. "This is a piece of the puzzle, just getting them interested in picking books up."
In 2010, researchers at the University of California, Davis studied a group of students who read to dogs once a week for 10 weeks. They found that third graders improved their reading fluency by 12 percent.
The experience also changed students' feelings toward reading aloud. At the beginning of the study, students told the researchers that they felt self-conscious, clumsy, and uncomfortable reading out loud. By the end, they described it as fun and cool, and said they felt more relaxed when reading to a dog.
When Knox, the pitbull, and Lucy Gaga, a Boston terrier, walk through the Westport doors, they're immediately enveloped by students who are excited to read to them, pet them, and cuddle with them on fuzzy carpets in the school's multipurpose room.