GREENFIELD — The large, fluffy white Great Pyrenees named Bentley sat in the middle of the reading circle. He was being petted and hugged by dozens of third-grade students at St. Michael School.
The gentle dog sat patiently, lapping up the attention, and even appeared to be listening intently to the children as they took turns reading to him from their classroom book.
It’s hard to believe that a four-legged furry friend could be such a valuable teaching tool in helping youngsters develop reading skills, but he is.
Bentley, a 3-year-old, 85-pound pooch, is part of a childhood reading program called Woofs and Books. The program uses highly trained animals that have been rescued to help encourage and improve reading skills by placing the animal in direct contact with the children in the classroom.
“It’s just been wonderful,” said St. Michael third-grade teacher Jane Mosier. “A lot of my kids who maybe aren’t as confident in their reading skills have really opened up, thanks to Bentley.”
The dog belongs to Nickie Scott of Greenfield, who rescued Bentley after he had been hit by a car and left with two shattered legs and another injured one. While nursing Bentley back to health, Scott noticed his great disposition and thought he might make a good reading buddy for area students.
“I had actually fostered another dog that had done Woofs and Books,” Scott said. “That’s how I knew about it.”
Woofs and Books, a Noblesville-based company, trains animals to visit schools and libraries at no cost for reading and literacy sessions with small groups of children.
Scott, who used to work at St. Michael, contacted Mosier when Mosier was a pre-kindergarten teacher, and she started bringing Bentley to the school in January 2012.
After a successful pilot year, Bentley was back in school this past fall with a full slate of classes. He now listens to hundreds of children read in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first-grade and third-grade classes at St. Michael and other schools in the county.
“I feel really great about the relationship we have been able to build with the schools,” Scott said. “The students and the teachers have received Bentley well. They look forward to his visits and look forward to reading to him.”
Mosier has even noticed a behavioral change in some of her students since Bentley began coming into the classroom. Children get to read to him only if they’ve earned the right.
Having the dog in the classroom, though, has mostly been beneficial in that he has gotten the students excited about reading.
“I want them to enjoy reading because a lot of the time they are made to read, and this brings that enjoyment back for them,” Mosier said.
Scott insists Bentley knows what he’s doing when he’s sitting in the middle of young children listening to them read.
“I truly believe Bentley knows he is doing something great,” Scott said. “Parents tell me that the kids come home and share with them what they read to Bentley that day.”
The younger students even get Bentley Books to take home.
“I had one parent praising Bentley because her pre-kindergarten student was reading her Bentley Book to a younger sibling,” Scott said.
Mosier credits the dog, too, saying sometimes a four-legged friend can communicate better with a child than an adult can.
“Bentley is non-judgmental,” Mosier said. “He’s just there for them to listen, and that has really helped my kiddos who have somewhat struggled.”