As Grant Payne opens his book, Alma lays down next to him. At the beginning of the reading period, the Frisco Elementary third-grader fidgeted in his beanbag chair, but as time goes on, the calming presence of Alma takes effect. While Grant focuses on sounding out a difficult word, Alma sighs and rests her head against his knee. Her work here is done.
Alma is a black Labrador, and she is part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, which pairs children with canines in the hope that the relationship will improved literacy and communication skills.
Summit County's R.E.A.D. dogs are part of the group Summit Therapy Animals, a nonprofit that provides pet-facilitated therapy in hospitals, schools and libraries, among others. All of the dogs go through training and tests to become certified as therapy animals before going on assignment.
Alma has the distinction of being the first R.E.A.D. dog in Summit County. Her owner, Susan Alderman, pioneered the program with the Summit County schools.
"Animals with a lot of love can do a lot," Alderman said.
She says R.E.A.D. is a good fit for Alma. The Lab was originally raised to become a service dog for people with disabilities through the Canine Partners of the Rockies. As she neared the end of the program, however, it became clear to her handlers that acting as a service dog wasn't in Alma's wheelhouse. Her true mission, it turned out, was found in the library with kids.
The program contacted Alderman and asked if she would ensure Alma's future helping children.
"Being a former teacher and having reading as one of my loves in terms of kids, I said 'of course.' So that's how it started," said Alderman, who has lived in Summit County for 25 years.
In 2005 she offered Alma's services to Frisco Elementary. Now, more than 10 teams provide R.E.A.D. dogs for every school in Summit County except Breckenridge Elementary. However, Alderman said a team is currently going through training with the intent to take on that school as well.
Every Thursday, Alderman walks Alma to the doorway of Frisco's third- and fourth-grade classrooms. Each student involved in the R.E.A.D. program takes turns with Alma. They come to the door, greet her cheerfully and take her leash, leading her through the winding hallways to a quiet room. As the students settle into a beanbag chair, Alma cuddles up to them and puts her head down as they open their book. Alderman sits nearby, ready to give help with difficult words.
The difference between the noisy classroom and the reading room is dramatic. As the pages turn, the students relax as they are drawn into the story. The only sound is peaceful, rhythmic sound of Alma's breathing.
"It gives them a non-threatening place where they can read," said Martha Herwehe, a fourth-grade teacher at Frisco Elementary. She says she also notices a difference in behavior after the children come back from their reading sessions.
"They're confident. They're excited when they go," she said. "They love being with the dog."
Herwehe says that reading with the dogs helps the children learn. It increases their fluency and their understanding of the material.
"Oral reading is so different than reading to themselves. They feel like they're telling the story."
Therapy dogs are chosen for their calm temperament and gentle behavior. The training they go through makes sure that they react appropriately in a public setting that may include children, sick people, the elderly and other animals. When deciding what type of therapy to do, it's important to observe where the animal feels the most comfortable, says Alderman. Alma, for example, exhibited signs of stress when placed in a retirement home environment, but is completely at home with young children.
According to the Intermountain Therapy Animals website - the organization that started R.E.A.D. in 1999 - spending time with animals increases relaxation and lowers blood pressure. Children will feel comfortable reading to the animal because they can go at their own pace without feeling judgment, as they might from peers.
"It's about the relationship with the kids," said Alderman. "The goal is to make it possible for them to be in an environment where they feel comfortable, where they don't feel judged."
Herwehe agrees, and says that her students are talkative after their reading sessions, and like to tell stories about the dogs they spend time with.
When asked what his favorite part about reading to Alma was, Grant replied, "She listens."