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In Fitchburg, Four-legged Listeners Hasten Reading for Special-needs Pupils

October 10, 2018

FITCHBURG -- For a group of Reingold Elementary School students who need extra support learning to read, an audience that walks through the door on four legs may provide the just the right amount of encouragement.

“With the pets, they want to do it, they want to read, and getting them to want to do it is what we struggle with at times,” said special education teacher Angela Gill.

Gill spoke early this month as students huddled around a Great Dane called Fiona and Mr. Wuffles, a black cat who lounged in a carrier.

They were brought in to help students read through Be PAWsitive, the pet therapy initiative now in its third year that is run by School Committee member Sally Cragin.

Cragin said some children who last year read to the pets once a week increased the time they could read aloud continually, as well as the length of the books they read.

“Our hypothesis was that children who read to therapy pets read for a longer period of time, and they read longer books,” she said. “That was proved to be true.”

One of eight students in class that day, Liana Whitcomb, read a Dr. Seuss book to Mr. Wuffles, Cragin’s therapy cat.

Whitcomb paused and used two fingers to gently pet the black cat. Another byproduct of the program, said Cragin, is teaching students “pet manners” they use with their own family animals.

Whitcomb read to the feline for 20 minutes of the hourlong session.

It was an “impressive” achievement for the student who previously grew frustrated after five or six minutes reading, said paraprofessional Julie Paine.

Gill said the pet therapy program helps students build up their vocabulary, fluency, and background knowledge.

As Mr. Wuffles’ ears pitched back -- a sign the cat was relaxed, Cragin said -- Paine said the animals help keep the students calm so they can focus on honing their reading skills.

“For her to go through the entire book, it’s clear she felt calm,” Paine said.

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