Jenna Agueda sits on the floor at the Brookfield Branch Library of the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library and reads aloud a book, “Annie and the Snowball and the Wintry Freeze.”
Her audience is Beezus, a 5-year-old beagle female. Beezus seems a little fidgety but settles down with encouragement from her handler, Dakota Obermiyer.
Seven-year-old Jenna, who drew a picture for Beezus, has really blossomed in reading and her mother, Lesley, believes reading to Beezus is a big part of that.
Although Jenna has three dogs, a cat, four birds and fish at home, the one-on-one time with Beezus is different.
“It helps keep her attention,” Lesley Agueda said. “She’s on a mission to read to this dog.”
It doesn’t hurt that, after reading, Jenna gets to pet Beezus until the next reader comes.
Beezus is a therapy dog registered with Pet Partners. In addition to monthly reading sessions at the library, she has visited patients at the Sharon and Farrell hospitals and Juniper Village at Shenango Inn, a personal care home in Sharon, and greeted travelers at the Cleveland Hopkins International Event at a holiday travel de-stressing event.
There is research showing therapy dogs affect people by lowering their blood pressure, promoting cardiovascular health and releasing endorphins, Dakota said. Can they really make a difference in a child’s ability to read? That’s what Dakota and his twin sister, Emily, are trying to find out in a study they’re conducting at Brookfield Elementary School.
The school board granted the Obermiyers’ request to conduct the study in December, and they are about four weeks through the six-week study period.
“We’re asking the question, ‘Will reading with a therapy dog cause a child’s reading level to increase, as well as their overall attitude towards reading?’” said Dakota, a 16-year-old Brookfield High School student. “We hypothesize that, yes, reading with a therapy dog will increase a child’s reading level as well as positively increase the child’s overall attitude towards reading.”
How should reading to a dog be beneficial?
“It’s supposed to produce a less stressful environment, because they’re not worried about, like, reading to a teacher and getting judged on grammar or their reading ability,” Dakota said. “It’s supposed to be a more relaxed environment.”
The Obermiyers are studying two groups: one set of children in grades one to three who are reading to Beezus, and another set reading to Emily. Each child reads twice a week for about 15 minutes at a time. The study follows Pet Partners’ “Read With Me” program guidelines. Pet Partners also is providing liability insurance.
The participating children took a survey at the beginning of the study, and will take another after the last reading session.
“The surveys were made to try to assess the child’s overall attitude towards reading, as well as act as a self-evaluation of their reading ability,” Dakota said.
The school board members praised the Obermiyers for undertaking the study and for their preparation, while school administrators believe it will boost the district’s efforts.
“I’m excited about the opportunity for some of our kids who are not already getting tutored, not spending extra time in a Title classroom, but still not really reading as successfully as they could, to have this opportunity,” said Superintendent Velina Jo Taylor.
“We’re looking for kids that are in the middle, so not, like, the best of the best readers but not the worst of the worst, the kids that are kind of teetering on the edge, to see if this program can make a difference in that,” Dakota said.
The Obermiyers, who have an adult sponsor in their aunt, Dr. Kelley Kilar of Village Green Veterinary Service Inc., Brookfield, will enter their study in Lake-to-River Science Day, a science fair to be held March 25 at Youngstown State University.
“Just having someone participate in a science fair has me kind of tickled pink, because we’ve talked about it, the board has talked about it a number of times, it’s something we’d like to bring back here at our middle school level,” Taylor said. “This is above and beyond that. This is at YSU, and it’s going to be really neat having someone from Brookfield represented at YSU.”