Therapy dogs program helps Carmel Valley students learn the joy of reading


By Karen Billing

Solana Highlands Elementary School is now employing some very special reading helpers: Therapy dogs. The dogs provide a calming, sweet, attentive and non-judgmental audience for students who might otherwise be nervous reading aloud.

An added bonus: Students have figured out a way to turn pages and pet a pup at the same time.

Emily Glassford-Valenzano, learning center teacher for kindergarten through second-grade students, helped coordinate the two-week old program and the biggest thing she’s noticed so far is the confidence it is building in the students.

“When the students are reading in the classroom, there’s a lot of pressure, they’re worried about making mistakes,” said Glassford-Valenzano. “They’re more relaxed around the dogs, more willing to take risks.”

She told the story of one student who hated to read in class so much that he would be driven to tears. The student was so excited last week that he read six books to one of the dogs and didn’t want to stop.

That story is principal Jerry Jones’ favorite.

“The kids love the dogs, it’s so much fun,” said Liz Young, who coordinates the reading program through Therapy Dogs Inc. “The kids get so much out of it. They forget the real world and just enjoy themselves.”

With her husband, John, the Youngs are testers and observers for Therapy Dogs Inc., a national organization that registers, supports and insures members who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities.

They have been working with therapy dogs in schools for years, mainly in Arizona before they moved to San Diego three years ago. They have had their reading program at Nativity School in Rancho Santa Fe for the last year and just started at Solana Highlands.

“We love working in the schools,” said Young, 73. “We’re retired and it’s a great way to spend your time.”

The Youngs pick dogs and volunteers that are really special. Last week, they had Sue Eldred, a volunteer who is a professor at National University and chair of the school of education. She was accompanied by Buddy, who happily wagged his tail at every student and nudged his nose into their books.

Carole Stevens was there with George, who also lends his services to hospitals. George lies contentedly on his back listening to readers as Stevens is cheerfully encouraging and engaging with the students.

Susan Okuno, a social worker, volunteers with her dog Rosie, a three-legged dog rescue from Baja who is especially inspirational.

“She shows the kids you can get by and do things no matter what,” Young said.

It has been rewarding for both Principal Jones and Glassford-Valenzano to see the program click and see students improve their fluency and be proud of their reading.

“They don’t want to leave, they want to keep reading,” Glassford-Valenzano. “And these are kids who getting them to read one book [was] a struggle.”