GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Ross, as the students call him, embodies a new breed of reading teacher in public schools. He's great with kids, patient and likes to have his ears rubbed.
He's a dog.
Every Tuesday at Washington Grove Elementary, students who struggle with reading get a private session with Ross, an Irish setter, or with Tucker, a golden retriever.
For about 30 minutes, each child reads to one of the two trained therapy dogs. No teachers or other students are in the room. The animal's handler guides the lesson, but even she poses her questions as if the dog is the one who wants answers about the story.
Unusual? Sure, school leaders say, but the students seem inspired.
"They like the nonjudgmental character of the dog," said Barbara Murgo, the human partner in the therapy team with Ross, whose formal name is Rossini.
"If they make a mistake, the dog isn't going to correct them," Murgo said. "The dog is not going to laugh at them. It's just going to listen and love every word they say."
The READ teams — Reading Education Assistance Dogs — are redefining teachers' pets across the country. The dogs and their handlers are being welcomed into schools to help children overcome their fear of mistakes.
For years, besides being companions, dogs have been trained to help the blind, sniff for explosives and provide a soothing calm for hospital patients. Now they've found a niche as listeners.
Feel-good folly? No way, said Kathy Brake, the principal at Washington Grove. For schools to raise reading scores, children must improve in pronouncing and comprehending words. So first, she said, some kids must learn to relax and enjoy reading.
The kids don't question whether the dogs are listening. They assume it.
When Robin Kirk runs her READ lessons at Chevy Chase Elementary in Maryland, some of her students ask if her dog, Scout, has any questions for them. One child brought in four books and asked Scout to pick the one he wanted. Kirk went with the one Scout put his nose on.
The idea is catching on.
The number of dog-and-owner reading teams in schools, libraries and other sites totals more than 750 in 45 states, according to Intermountain Therapy Animals, the Utah-based nonprofit that created the program. That's up from less than 100 registered teams in early 2004.
Yet Kathy Klotz, executive director of the organization, acknowledges the idea does not appeal to everyone. When people don't want dogs in schools, they cite all kinds of reasons — health, safety, skepticism that an animal could possibly help with academics.
"If somebody doesn't want us, we don't try real hard there," she said. "There are so many places that do want us, and there aren't enough teams anyway right now."
At Washington Grove, Brake embraced the idea. It helped that she's a dog owner.
She found two teachers at her school, Kathy Van de Poll and Jessica Mollard, who were willing to try out the program. They chose four students to receive extra help each week.
One of them is 10-year-old Fernando Arellano. During a recent lesson, he confidently made his way through a book on dinosaurs, stumbling mainly on names that could stump adults, too.
Meanwhile, Ross rested on a blanket, sometimes watching Fernando, sometimes not. When the dog's attention drifted, Murgo tried to keep him involved, asking: "What do you think, Ross?"
After the half-hour passed, Fernando got to brush and pet Ross, the reward that ends each session. Murgo said the young boy has made huge progress since the start of the school year, when he read so fast he didn't stop for periods.
A soft-spoken 10-year-old, Jennifer Flores, was Ross's next student. She picked the right session to get stuck on a word that refers to a turned-down page corner: dog-eared.
Murgo said the lessons were paying off with Jennifer, too. The girl read an entire children's book in one session, with much less guessing at how to say the words. Her mother, Yenny Gutierrez, said her daughter's self-confidence was soaring. Jennifer has taken to reading books out loud in English to her parents, even though the family speaks Spanish at home.
It's hard to measure how much the program's four English-language learners are helped by reading to dogs. Officials are hoping to collect such data, just as national coordinators of the READ effort hope more research will win over skeptics.
Catherine Snow, an expert on childhood literacy development at Harvard University, said anything that helps poor readers find enjoyment in books is good — but isn't enough on its own.
"If the kids are freaked out about being corrected, and this gets them over the hump, then fine," Snow said about reading to dogs. "But if they need to be guided to attend more carefully to the words and the way you sound out those letters, and all this does is give them a respite, then it really isn't going to help reading at all. They need that instruction."
The students at Washington Grove get a heavy dose of teaching in vocabulary and comprehension, said Van de Poll. But reading to dogs is pure enjoyment, because the animal can't quiz the child with, "Oh! What did you read there? Can you read that again?"
Not just any dog will do. To be a therapy animal, dogs are screened to ensure they have the right skills, temperament, health and cleanliness. Then, to be a reading assistance dog, they must prove they can handle the commotion of a school environment.
Handlers, too, must go through training with their pets. The therapy teams are volunteers, supported by donations, which means there are no direct costs to schools.
Said Washington Grove's Brake: "We have 370 children here, and I'd love to have all 370 of my children reading with a dog."
On The Net:
Washington Grove Elementary School: www.mcps.k12.md.us/schools/washingtongrovees/
National Capital Therapy Dogs: www.nctdinc.org/
Intermountain Therapy Animals: www.therapyanimals.org/