Pawsitive Experience: Bentley’s Buddies is growing, needs K-9 volunteers

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Volunteer Sandy White helps Serenity Athalone with her reading along with Chase, a Sheltie. Bentley’s Buddies is in need of volunteers — dog/owner teams who are willing to help children learn to read.

Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

GREENFIELD — Bentley would be so proud.

Bentley’s Buddies and Friends — the canine-and-child reading program pioneered by the late Great Pyrenees — is growing exponentially.

More than 10,000 kids have taken part in the program since it first began in 2014.

Now, founder Nickie Scott is in a rebuilding phase. She’s been busy recruiting more volunteers and trying to get the popular program back into the schools after a long hiatus due to the COVID pandemic.

Scott has already restarted the program at a few schools — including Brandywine Elementary in New Palestine and Weston Elementary and St. Michael Catholic School in Greenfield— but she’s hoping to expand into many more.

She’s also seeing rapid growth in the number of kids coming in for one-on-one reading help at the Bentley’s Buddies office in Greenfield, in a strip mall at 1220 W. Main St.

More than 35 kids are now coming into the office, where they’re able to snuggle up to a four-legged friend and read to them.

Sandy White, who volunteers with her Shetland sheepdog, Chase, knows just how to get kids engaged with their canine reading companions.

“I’ll say ‘Chase can’t hear you,’ or he’ll put his foot on the page and I’ll say, ‘Chase wants to read.’ I incorporate what the dog is doing to guide the kids,” she said. “It’s comforting to them to be able to reach over and pet the dog, and guiding them through the dog’s actions helps encourage them. We see the growth over time, how the kids improve their reading skills.”

Stacy Lanton has seen impressive growth in her daughter, Lucy Blanton, 13, who started the program as a second grader five years ago.

“She was getting really nervous about the I-READ test that you had to pass back in elementary school to pass onto the next grade,” her mom recalled.

“We were looking at tutoring and after-school programs. We ended up finding Bentley’s Buddies, and we’ve never needed to go anywhere else. It’s given her the confidence she needed, and she ended up passing her test just fine.”

The Greenfield mom signed her daughter up for private sessions through Bentley’s Buddies after seeing how well she responded to the program in the school.

“She’s been going twice a week ever since, and she just loves it,” she said. “She definitely struggled with reading, and it affected her confidence. She felt a lot more comfortable (building those reading skills) with the dogs.”

Scott said that’s the beauty of the program.

“A lot of the kiddos who come to us don’t have a lot of confidence in their reading,” she said.

While teachers and parents try to help, there’s nothing quite as comforting and non-judgemental as a dog, said Scott, who thinks cuddly canines make the perfect reading companions.

“The dog is who really helps relax the students. A dog doesn’t judge the child, the dog won’t tell them they’re wrong, a dog won’t give them a test. All the dog does is sit there and encourage them. They can encourage by laying there, they can encourage through licks, or by putting their paw on a book,” she said.

“When kids come to us, we really work on building up that confidence up. Once we get that confidence going the right direction, then we’re able to work on reading and reading skills.”

With the explosive growth of the program, Scott needs more volunteers to keep up with demand.

Bentley’s Buddies has a growing list of private session requests at the office, and Scott is working to get the program back out into the schools.

She needs dogs and dog owners to fill the slots. All it takes is a gentle dog and the willingness to devote a little time each week, as little as 30 minutes.

Wright can attest that the job is richly rewarding.

“It’s really something to see the kids connect with the dogs, and it’s so rewarding when they really start to enjoy reading,” she said.

Scott has seen the rewards time and time again in the thousands of kids who have taken part in the program since it was launched with a lovable dog named Bentley eight years ago.

“I have one little boy who started with me at the end of first grade going into second,” she recalled. “He was reading just one sentence on a page. He just didn’t like to read and was failing to meet the school standards. He’s now in the third grade, and on two sections of his I-READ test he got a perfect score.”

Scott is also incredibly proud of Lucy, who started out in Bentley’s Buddies just able to read a sentence or two but has blossomed into an avid reader.

“It’s just been a really positive experience working with her,” said Scott, who recalls being able to identify dyslexia in one young reader.

“I asked mom if I could have permission to talk to the school, and the teacher said ‘I’m so glad you’re seeing this too.’ We worked with mom to get testing, and it turned out she had dyslexia. Since we have that diagnosis, now we were able to change our approach, and she’s reading like a champ now,” Scott said. “Her confidence has gone through the roof.”

Scott said there’s no cost involved to volunteer. “We just need vaccinated, well-behaved dogs who like kids and who can stand all the loving they can get.”

For more information, visit BentleysBuddies.com, call Scott at 317-604-7309 or stop by the office between noon and 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

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