GREENFIELD — When a child reads aloud, words take on more meaning.
When they hear a phrase, an image forms in their mind, and from there, the child makes a connection, according to second-grade teacher Elaine Landis.
It’s an important step toward understanding language, but reading aloud can be nerve-racking for youngsters still learning the skill. When a young reader stumbles over or struggles with the pronunciation of a word, it shakes their confidence, Landis said.
But the dogs from Bentley’s Buddies and Friends never judge, and educators said those canines can make all the difference in a child’s reading skills. The literacy program, which invites young learners to read books aloud to man’s best friend, has grown so popular that organizers are looking to expand.
More and more Hancock County teachers are eager to bring Bentley’s Buddies into their classrooms, and Nickie Scott, the group’s director, is looking for more furry friends to join the organization.
The program provides a quiet — not to mention quite cuddly — audience for students to practice their reading with, and teachers like Landis know firsthand what a help that practice can be.
After Scott and Bentley, her great Pyrenees, started visiting Landis’ classroom at Brandywine Elementary School in New Palestine, Landis noticed a boost in her students’ excitement for reading.
“It makes them feel very confident,” she said. “Even if they missed a word, Bentley’s not going to notice. It was so encouraging.”
More than 500 area children regularly read to a dog from Bentley’s Buddies, who visit local schools, libraries, carnivals and more, offering the service free of charge.
The 17 dogs currently enlisted in the organization’s lineup cannot keep up with the growing demand, Scott said, and she’s seeking dog owners — and their pups — interested in volunteering a few hours of their time at area schools.
After spending years helping kids practice reading through a similar Noblesville-based program, Scott, a Greenfield resident, created the local group last August in hopes of having an organization dedicated to students in Hancock County.
So far, the group has had overwhelming success, Scott said, and she is thrilled with the results.
“I never imagined it would grow this quickly,” she said.
Becoming a volunteer is free and easy, Scott said.
In order to join the organization, dog owners have to pass a criminal background check. Dogs are required to complete evaluations by the owner, a veterinarian and a current Bentley’s Buddies volunteer.
These steps help to determine if the dog is friendly with children and will stay calm in large groups, she said.
Scott said she is in talks with several area school districts to see how her group can expand its offerings.
Currently, Bentley and his buddies make routine visits to a handful of classrooms at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Greenfield and Southern Hancock Community Schools in New Palestine. Teachers in both districts hope more dogs will help make visits on a more regular basis.
Brandy Sego, a preschool teacher at St. Michael’s, said her students light up when Bentley comes into the classroom. Even though her students are often just starting to learn their letters, having a quiet and calm canine helps the kids stay focused, she said.
And gentle giants like Bentley are often the best dogs for the job, Sego said. No matter how rambunctious her students get, the well-trained dogs from Bentley’s Buddies are always calm and gentle, she said.
“It’s so helpful, and I’m surprised more teachers don’t take advantage of it,” she said.
All new volunteers are encouraged to have their pet complete a Canine Good Citizen obedience test.
Testing will take place from 1-3 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds. The cost of the test is $25, and all participants must reserve a spot by contacting director Nickie Scott at 317-604-7309.
For more information about volunteering your pet as a reading buddy, visit BentleysBuddies.com.