ORRINGTON, Maine — Reading aloud can be a scary proposition to someone who is just learning, but add a dog and suddenly it’s almost as much fun as playing outside at recess.
And outside is where one would expect to find kids and dogs interacting, but not at Center Drive School. There, a group of 10 first-graders get up close and personal with their four-legged friend Miguel each week, who quietly listens as the kids take turns reading stories to him.
“I love Miguel,” Landon Voteur, 6, said Monday just after he finished reading a book to the visiting dog. “He is fluffy and cute.”
Miguel is a large, white 4-year-old standard poodle who is trained as a therapy dog. He visits the Orrington school every Thursday to work with students in Colleen Johnson’s reading support group.
“It builds their love for reading,” she said, watching as the 6- and 7-year-old students picked out books from the library to read aloud to the curly haired pooch. “Every one of my students, even the nonreaders, have just blossomed.”
The students look forward to reading aloud to Miguel and have developed a lot more self-confidence, she said.
“Sometimes he puts his head on their laps; it’s really cute,” Johnson said of the canine.
Miguel and his owner, the Rev. Renee Garrett of Holden, made a special Monday visit to the school this week and 6-year-old Andrew Fournier read Miguel “Hello Bingo!” a book about a small brown and black dog.
The visiting dog likes that book “because he’s a dog,” the youngster explained.
“It’s his favorite book,” said Garrett, who volunteers at the school because she enjoys watching students learn. “He seems to like dog stories best.”
Then she joked that he turns his nose up at cat stories, unless a little kid is reading it to him.
“I think he likes shadows. I think he likes birds. I think he likes the sky,” said Ethan Higgins, 7, holding three books about shadows, birds and the sky. “I think Miguel will like these stories.”
The kids pick the stories they want to read based on their ability, Johnson said.
Miguel seemed to love everything the kids did.
“He had such an amazing temperament, even as a puppy,” Garrett said, saying that is why she enrolled Miguel in training through Therapy Dogs International. “He’s just wonderful. He’s willing to try anything.”
After becoming certified, Miguel worked at the Bangor Public Library as a reading dog but the afternoon time slot didn’t fit Garrett’s schedule.
Plus, “Our real goal was to come to school to help children who need an incentive to become better readers,” she said. “I love watching the children’s reading improve. It’s wonderful.”
The students on Monday showed Miguel pictures in the small book as they read to him, and Miguel appeared to be listening intently.
“We only put his collar on when he’s working,” Garrett said. “When that happens, he knows it’s fun time.”
The students improve their reading, learn to love books and gain respect and affection for dogs.
Not all of the children who “read” to Miguel actually have learned to read. Some kindergarten students instead use the books to tell stories to Miguel, Johnson said.
“They seem to be enthralled to be reading to a dog,” the teacher said. “They tell the best stories.”
The program is so successful that “other teachers [in the school] have asked to have their children read to him,” she said.
The 10 students in Johnson’s reading program wrote Miguel a book, with each child filling out a page, and the canine gave them each a book for Christmas, autographed with a paw print, Johnson said.
“The whole school brightens up when they see him,” she said, telling stories about when Miguel — who is a big poodle — first came to school. “Somebody thought he was a sheep” and one child said, “that’s not a dog, that’s a horse.”
“It’s a wonderful program,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing what an animal will do.”
Miguel didn’t say much during his morning session with the kids.
He just stood there, wagging his tail, waiting for the next story.