Dogs and cats can provide more than just love and companionship for kids — they can actually help with their education.
The homeless pets at the Etowah Valley Humane Society acted as sounding boards for Allatoona Elementary's fifth-grade Beta Club members Tuesday afternoon as the eight students practiced reading some of their favorite books to the dogs and cats during the first Allatoona Animal Reading Friends — AARF — event.
"Reading out loud, especially to a nonjudgmental audience, is beneficial to any child," Beta Club co-sponsor Becky Woolsey said. "Additionally, we are teaching them about how to volunteer. The animals at the shelter are getting to spend some time with children who are excited about being there with them. It’s a win-win for human and animal alike."
EVHS Director Bryan Canty said he thought helping students strengthen their reading skills by using the animals as their listeners was "a great idea" when Woolsey presented it to him last summer.
"I had seen this concept on social media last year, and it was something that I thought, 'Hmmm, we can do that,'" he said. "People share with me so many concepts that they think are good ideas, but in reality, they aren't. People don't realize that when you work with animals, there can be lots of liabilities associated with their interactions. With limited actual contact at this point, I knew this one had the potential to catch on."
He added he "elected" Woolsey as the project manager, and she "quickly obliged and made good on her promise to make it happen."
Woolsey, a first-grade teacher, said she came across the idea when she was scrolling through Facebook and found the Shelter Buddies Reading Program on the Missouri Humane Society's page.
"I immediately thought of our Junior Beta Club and our connection with our local Etowah Valley Humane Society," she said. "A few years ago, our club held a used-towel and blanket drive for EVHS."
Canty said the project "serves as a win-win" for the students and the homeless pets.
"The kids get to practice their reading skills in front of a nonjudgmental audience, and the 'residents' at EVHS get the attention that they long for in a calmer setting," he said. "They are both richer as a result. One look at the faces of both, and you know exactly what I'm talking about."
During the hourlong event, eight of the nine Beta Club members and one first-grade sibling of a member sat outside the cages and runs — and a few ventured into the play room with some free-roaming cats — and read to the pooches and kitties "for a good 30 minutes," Woolsey said, noting the school had 18 representatives there, including Principal Jim Bishop, parents, grandparents and siblings.
Club co-sponsor Deborah Ziglar said students chose their own books to share with the pets.
"Some picked a favorite book, and others brought the chapter book they were currently reading," the media specialist said. "Most wanted to read picture books to the animals."
Woolsey said the pets "seemed very attentive" to the students as they read.
"All cages had only one animal, and those animals were right up to the front, watching the student," she said. "The runs held more than one dog. Dogs in the run that had a child in front of it would sit or stand close; a couple laid down."
Beta Club member Lily Carter, 10, said she enjoyed reading "Clifford the Big Red Dog” to the animals.
"I like reading to the dogs because they are happy when you read," she said, noting one of the pets she read to was named Chester. "I liked this project because the dogs were really sweet."
Eleven-year-old Hector Ojeda said he read "Familiars" to Cooper and Hank, who "listened really well."
"It was fun because it is fun to spend time with the animals," he said.
To prepare for the experience, Woolsey took the club members, parents and siblings to the shelter the week before for a tour and some volunteer training.
"They were very attentive, and hopefully, they can communicate that to folks in their spheres of influence," Canty said. "We want all of our volunteers to be ambassadors for EVHS."
Woolsey, Ziglar and Canty all consider the first-time event a success.
"I think our inaugural reading went well," Woolsey said. "The dogs were barking pretty loud at first, but soon the students were reading, and the room quieted down some. The students did an amazing job."
"The activity went really well," Ziglar said. "The students were engaged, and the animals really did seem to enjoy the visit."
Canty also thought the event was beneficial for all involved.
"Initially, the dogs were overly stimulated and barking loudly, but that's because they were excited to have so many visitors in the kennel area," he said. "They settled down after the kids sat down and started reading to them."
Woolsey said the goal is for club members — and possibly other students — to visit the shelter about once a month to practice their reading skills, which is just fine with Lily and Hector.
"I would love to do it again," Lily said.
It's also fine with Canty, who said he's "very encouraged by their willingness to participate."
"These kids are the future of animal welfare in our community, and they need to be brought up the right way rather than be reprogrammed as adults," he said.