Man’s Best Tutor? Therapy dog relaxes kids for reading practice

Drake Adams, a third-grade student at Wingate Elementary School, practices reading while sitting next to Wilbur, a therapy dog. Studies have shown that test scores improve for children struggling to read if they read to a therapy dog, the school’s principal said.

Every Wednesday, Ellie Seligman reads to her friend Wilbur.

Sometimes he looks at the pictures in her book. Other times he lies patiently, staring at a wall. If he’s good, he gets a treat.

Wilbur is a 4-year-old Labradoodle and certified therapy dog. He visits Wingate Elementary School every Wednesday and sits with four students, including Seligman, for 15 minutes each as they read. His trainer, Rita Crumpton of Grand Junction, said Wilbur acts as a non-threatening, non-judgmental reading partner for students who are behind in reading and may feel shy about reading in front of classmates or adults. She began bringing Wilbur to the school this fall as part of program she calls “Tail Waggin’ Tutor.”

“From the first day they were comfortable with him because he’s so laid back,” Crumpton said. “Now they just come in, hug him and read, and they’re relaxed doing it.”

Third- through fifth-grade students selected for the “Tail Waggin’ Tutor” program with Wilbur read below grade level. Wingate Principal Carol Wethington said studies show test scores improve for children struggling to read if they read to a therapy dog. More than anything, though, she wants kids to feel more comfortable reading.

“It’s not all about test scores. It’s about who can we help become better readers,” Wethington said.

Brenda Welch, a special education instructional aide at Wingate who observes the reading sessions with Wilbur and students, said she has seen students improve their reading skills because they are relaxed during the sessions.

“It’s just so sweet to see the bond they’re forming with him,” she said.

Wilbur is the first certified therapy dog to work in District 51. He went through 18 months of training to become a Therapy Dog International Active Volunteer. Crumpton picked him out as the runt of a friend’s litter of Labradoodles and didn’t know at first if he would live. He grew into a docile puppy and aced hours of certification testing with ease. He started work as a therapy dog by touring hospitals and nursing homes, but Crumpton said she always wanted to bring him to a school. When her church, Monument Presbyterian Church, adopted Wingate as a school where members would volunteer for service projects, she jumped at the chance to offer Wilbur’s services.

“This is where I’ve wanted to be,” she said.

Crumpton said the upcoming winter break will be a long two weeks for Wilbur without his reading pals. Seligman, a fourth-grader, has three dogs at home but will miss Wilbur, too.

“It’s an honor to read to Wilbur because not a lot of people get to read to Wilbur,” she said. “He’s happy, he’s always calm. He’s one of the nicest dogs I’ve ever met.”


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