A dog teaching students how to read may sound silly. But Boudreaux, a big, fluffy, white rescue dog from Louisiana—accompanied by the UT staff member who owns him—spends one morning each week giving students the encouragement they need to excel in the classroom.
Boudreaux was rescued by Donna Silvey, a communication specialist in UT’s College of Communication and Information, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When they moved to Knoxville in 2008, Silvey had Boudreaux assessed by Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee (HABIT), a community service program associated with the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, to see if he could be a part of the program. HABIT animals visit nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, hospital settings, and other facilities such as elementary school classrooms.
Boudreaux began his career with Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee’s Ruff Reading program at Belle Morris Elementary School in Knoxville, where he volunteered for four years.
Boudreaux now visits Katherine Officer’s fourth-grade class at Fountain City Elementary School every Thursday. He spends one-on-one time with four students a week, listening attentively as they each read to him for fifteen minutes.
“I saw enormous gains in their reading levels,” said Officer. “Sometimes I have stellar readers who just need a friend. Other times, I have a struggling student who is afraid to take the time to sound out words in front of their peers. But Boudreaux is always patient and proud. He encourages where others have failed.”
Boudreaux motivates the students to improve through his human-like gestures. If students are struggling with the words, he might place one of his large paws on their arm to let them know it is all right. He watches the children intently while reading. Sometimes he even looks at the book as if he is following along.
Silvey said she notices that children will sometimes choose more challenging books and work harder to impress Boudreaux.
“We were with this one little girl for the second time and I noticed a marked difference in her reading skills,” said Silvey. “I asked if she had been working on her reading and she said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been practicing so I can be good for Boudreaux.'”
Boudreaux also seems to be very sensitive to each child’s feelings.
One day when Boudreaux visited the class, he stayed very close to one boy’s side the whole time, Silvey said. Come to find out, the boy was hurting because he had recently found out his parents were divorcing.
In September, Silvey received a picture from a friend of another dog—a younger, smaller version of Boudreaux—that was at a high-kill shelter in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Learning the dog had only five days to live unless he was adopted, Silvey took a couple of days off work and drove to Louisiana to bring him home.
The new dog, Thibodeaux, is currently in training to work in the Ruff Reading program, too.
Silvey is grateful to work for a university with a desire to give back to the community.
“When I came to work for UT, I had been volunteering with HABIT for a few years already. I approached my bosses, Ed Cortez and Dean Mike Wirth, about working a flex schedule on Thursdays to allow me to continue volunteering,” said Silvey. “I’m very fortunate to have bosses that understand the importance of volunteering and believe in the power of a dog to encourage kids to be better readers.”
Silvey said that parents often say the Ruff Reading program is the best thing that has happened for their children.
“The whole point is that the children walk away thinking that reading is the most fun thing they can do,” said Silvey.
Officer says she is very fortunate to have Boudreaux’s and Silvey’s visits to her classroom.
“I think the most important thing to me, personally, is that my kids know that someone outside their family and in their community cares about them and thinks about them frequently,” said Officer.
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, firstname.lastname@example.org)