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.
"The students always look forward" to reading to the dogs, third grade teacher Kelsey Stritzinger said. "Their faces light up anytime I say, 'We have SPCA today.'"
Deasia Allen, a 10-year-old fifth grader, said she has become a more confident reader since the dogs started showing up at her school. She likes it so much that she started reading to her own dog at home. She said her chihuahua, Missy, is a much more attentive listener than her little sister.
"My dog never gets up and says, 'I want to leave, this is boring,'" Deasia said.
About 200 Westport students read to the dogs on an alternating, bi-weekly schedule.
The students flip through an age-appropriate book with an animal theme. They are encouraged to gently help their classmates sound out difficult words, or point them to the right page should they get lost.
As they read, Lucy Gaga weaves underneath the plastic blue chairs. Nearby, Knox sits in his doggy bed, while students lean over to pet him.
The books tie into larger lesson plans taught by SPCA staff on the humane treatment of animals. The staff members explain how to greet a dog correctly and what pet care entails, among other topics.
The SPCA hopes to leave students with more compassion for animals and each other. The students go on field trips to the shelter, and learn how to show love and care to cats and dogs.
Researchers say animal abuse indicates a person is more likely to also turn to violence against people.
Animal abuse is reported in the area around Westport at a greater rate than in the city as a whole. In the Westport, Mt. Winans and Lakeland neighborhoods, city officials reported 296 calls about animals in danger per 10,000 households in 2016. The citywide average was 177.
"I like how the children respond to the whole idea of being compassionate to animals," Locke said. "If they're compassionate to animals, the connection will be made to be compassionate to fellow human beings."
Locke said she notices students behaving more gently toward each other when they read to the dogs. That's especially important at a school like Westport, she said, where about 30 percent of students have special needs and may be more susceptible to bullying.
The program is funded with a $15,000 grant from the The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The foundation's Baltimore Library Project has transformed libraries at 14 middle and elementary schools in recent years.
The SPCA hopes to expand the program to more Weinberg libraries in coming years.
"It's helped some of our more shy students come out of their shells," said Rachel Duden, a program associate with the foundation. "Reading to the dogs and not feeling like they have to be scared has helped them improve."
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