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Four-legged tutors make reading fun for children

Brandy listens to students read during the after school program. 
A UMNS photo by Heidi Robinson.









By Heidi Robinson*

Nov. 16, 2006 | CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (UMNS)

Two four-legged reading coaches bring something special to an after-school tutoring program at First Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.
Sixty children read out loud to two trained therapy dogs as part of a partnership between the church and Read Aloud Chattanooga, an effort to engage children in a life-long love of reading.


 Peppy and her owner, Alice Clark, arrive at First Centenary United Methodist Church for an afternoon of listening to students read. A UMNS photo by Heidi Robinson.

"Reading affects everything…math, science," says Karen Fletcher, director of Inner City Ministry, an outreach program in this downtown church. "When the children here improve their reading, we see grades go up. And, everyone loves reading to these dogs. Many of the children in our program have never had a dog, so it adds interest which makes the reading even more special." 

All the children in the after-school program are considered "at-risk" either because of low test scores or home situations. But the church sees these children as future bookworms, and the dogs are part of that transformation.

Beverly Trobaugh, an early childhood educator at the church and liaison between the programs, explains, "When you are reading to a dog, you are reading to someone who is totally accepting, and non-judgmental. If a reader struggles, or stumbles that dog will just sit there, and smile. It is an encouraging listener who will not correct, just cuddle. So reading becomes something that makes you feel good."

On a recent afternoon, anticipation builds in the reading room. "After you've selected your story, have a seat in the circle so we can read and wait for the dogs," says Fletcher.

In the church parking lot, a van door slides open. Brandy, a golden-retriever, sedately steps from the van, while Peppy, an aptly-named terrier-mix, hops out and heads for the door.  

Both dogs started as therapy dogs, but received additional training that allows them to work with children. As the dogs make their way down the hall they receive a hero's welcome.

"Ooh, the dogs are here!" squeals a middle-school girl. "It just makes it so exciting to read to the dogs."

Smiling students in the reading room greet Brandy and Peppy with pats and squeezes.  As the children and dogs settle on the floor, the students begin to read, and the dogs sit quietly, gazing at each reader. 

After each child takes a turn, the dogs receive heart-felt hugs, and head off to the next room, where a fourth grader named Jemell has been waiting. "The dogs can tell I have improved my reading," he insists as he settles in to read a joke book. "And, they like funny books."

*Robinson is a freelance producer based near Cleveland, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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First Centenary United Methodist Church