Saturday, March 4, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Hushed whispers echo throughout the gym at Legacy Traditional School in the southwest valley as a class of third-graders surround Lucy, a 4-year-old therapy dog.
Each of the students gets the chance to read a page from “Pick Me!” by Greg Gormley, a children’s book about a shelter dog displaying its talents to get adopted, as the rest of the schoolchildren stroke Lucy’s fur.
The third-graders fidget with excitement at the prospect of getting their turn to read as Stephanie Brown, Lucy’s owner and handler, makes sure no child is left without a turn.
“They’re excited, but then they actually show kind of like a sense of calm when they read to the dogs because they’re almost caring for them, and they want the dogs to be receptive to them,” Principal Jessica Alanano said. “And even though (the dogs) are not speaking back to them, they kind of can see that the dogs are attentive to them (and) they’re attentive to the dog.”
Lucy’s appearance Wednesday was tied to Nevada Reading Week, which is five days of activities for pre-kindergarten to high school students “to promote a life-long love of reading,” according to the state’s Department of Education. The week, which ended Friday, brought the likes of Las Vegas Raiders star Maxx Crosby and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., to classrooms across the valley to read to children.
Lucy, a cross between a poodle and golden retriever, is a therapy dog with the Pet Partners of Las Vegas/Love Dog Adventures team.
Pet Partners, a nonprofit that registers therapy animals for use across the United States, is known for its work with schools, said Sue Grundfest, the chapter’s founder and president.
In the past, Grundfest has worked in groups and one-on-one with children with disabilities, those who are at-risk or just need a little support with their reading through the chapter’s Read With Me program.
“Dogs are not judgmental, (and) they don’t make fun of you when you skip a word,” Grundfest said. “The children feel safe, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
Alanano said it was what the Legacy Traditional third-graders deserved after winning the school’s quarterly core values competition for being the most responsible class. After weeks of the entire class returning books to the school library on time and managing their behavior, Alanano decided to book Pet Partners of Las Vegas for a reading session.
In her former roles as a literary specialist in the Clark County School District, Alanano had experience bringing therapy dogs to schools and had seen the effect these animals can have on kids. She witnessed firsthand how children — especially those with disabilities or behavioral conditions — could build their speaking and social awareness skills without the fear of being judged by peers or adults.
The fact that they aren’t reading to their teacher or for a grade provides the students with a low-stress environment, making it easier for them to gain the confidence to try reading — even if they make mistakes.
“Some of the kids in that room are struggling with reading, (and) it was interesting (because) the ones that raised their hand to actually take turns reading the book were some of the struggling readers that we don’t typically see volunteering in class,” Alanano said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost 10% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 years old had been diagnosed with anxiety between 2016 and 2019. That number has been rising steadily over time since 2011, the CDC said.
Anxiety disorders can vary depending upon the source of a person’s worries, from public speaking phobias to a constant fear of going to school or other crowded places. These conditions can interfere with a student’s ability to learn and build interpersonal relationships, according to Mental Health America.
Grundfest and her team at Pet Partners of Las Vegas know this all too well, which is why they have such a strong presence in local schools and colleges, Grundfest said.
Alanano has already decided that this won’t be a one-off event. She has plans to bring the dogs back as a class incentive in the fall for the charter school’s fundraising drive, and she’s looking at possibly allowing students from other grade levels the opportunity to participate.
“We definitely want the kids to have another opportunity to read to somebody besides their classroom teacher,” Alanano said. “I’d love to do this every year with the kids.”