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Donna Silvey, a communications specialist in the College of Communication and Information, has helped many area youngsters improve their reading skills. It’s been as simple as D-O-G.

Donna Silvey

Working with Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee (HABIT), Silvey has been taking her rescued pups to area elementary schools to inspire students to read for more than seven years.

Boudreaux and Tidbit
Boudreaux and Tidbit

It started with Boudreaux, a fluffy white dog that Silvey rescued from a Louisiana shelter after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Silvey had Boudreaux assessed by 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, hospitals, schools, and other facilities.

In 2008, after Boudreaux passed his HABIT test, he became part of the organization’s Ruff Reading program, first at Belle Morris Elementary School in Knoxville and later Fountain City Elementary School.

During a typical visit, he would spend one-on-one time with each youngster in the assigned class, listening attentively as they read to him. He seemed keenly aware of their needs, often laying his head or a paw on them for encouragement or comfort. The teacher told Silvey that her students’ reading improvements were due, in part, to having this special support.

Tidbit and a friend read together.

In September 2014, Silvey learned about another dog, also in a Louisiana shelter, that looked like a younger, smaller version of Boudreaux. Silvey drove nonstop to New Orleans, rescued the pup, and named him Thibodeaux (“Tidbit” for short).

Silvey—with Boudreaux’s guidance, of course—immediately began training Tidbit for volunteer work. Last summer, he passed his HABIT assessment with flying colors.

“Boudreaux retired in the fall and Tidbit took over,” Silvey said.

A retirement note from a student to Boudreaux.

“The teacher in the class put out an appeal to current and past students and parents for retirement notes for Boudreaux. She filled an entire notebook with cards and notes from kids and their parents from all seven years of Boudreaux’s service.

“Some were very poignant. You would need a box of tissues to read them all.”

Katherine Officer, fourth-grade teacher at Fountain City Elementary School, wrote in her note to Boudreaux: “Just a quick calculation tells me you have worked with at least 140 children…. You made their faces light up and their hearts race when it was their turn. You helped them create memories that will last for the rest of their lives. I can’t thank you or your sweet mom enough for how much you have helped my students, my classroom, and me over the years.”

Silvey said the notes confirmed what she already knew; “HABIT’s Ruff Reading Program works and provides great value to the East Tennessee communities it serves.”