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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Maribeth Lazich looks on as a Hollis Brookline Middle School student hugs her dog Hercules during a reading session Friday, January 27, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Happy Jack, left, and Justice were two of the dogs visiting students at Hollis Brookline Middle School Friday, January 27, 2012.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Struggling students at Hollis Brookline Middle School find benefits reading to dogs

HOLLIS – Struggling readers at Hollis Brookline Middle School are putting a new twist on the time-honored tradition of reading aloud.

Twice a month, they are reading to dogs.

The reading takes place in Jen Christman’s life skills class, where for 90 minutes four trained, certified and affectionate canines snuggle with their matches, or sit on their laps, listening, looking at illustrations and responding to the emotional changes in their readers’ voices.

Last Friday morning, members of this select audience included bulldog Happy Jack, a black Lab named Dudley, a toy poodle named Justice and Hercules, a fluffy white Coton de Tulear.

All of the dogs are certified through the American Kennel Club as “Canine Good Citizens” and all were calm, happy and well-behaved in the classroom. Two of the regular dogs were absent last week: a Scottish terrier named McGregor, and Indy, a Havanese.

Christman is a special education case manager for the school. The students with whom the dogs work have struggled with learning and reading. Christman said the results have been stunning.

“They’re comfortable reading to dogs,” Christman said. “It’s something exciting, and it’s different.”

Professional dog trainer Maribeth Lazich, a Brookline resident who works as a dog trainer for the local PetSmart store, developed the program after a chance encounter in the school library where she was volunteering.

“Jen (Christman) came in and asked a student if one of her students could read to him,” Lazich said, explaining how she came up with the idea to bring dogs into the school. “I’m a dog trainer and do therapy work with dogs, and I set up it up the first year.”

The first year, Lazich brought in two, trained service dogs who had hair, not fur, to avoid potential issues with allergies.

“They’re really reading to the dogs and the dogs enjoy it,” Christman said, adding, “The dogs are unconditional. They won’t point out a missed word.”

Reading to a dog is calming, she said. While a student labors to sound out a word or express it clearly, the dog sits attentively, all ears.

“There’s one student in particular who really looks forward to reading to a dog,” Christman said. “All week he’s saying, ‘Friday is coming. The dogs are coming.’ He greets them at the door.”

The program is motivating the students. During the week before the dogs come to school, students select their stories and practice reading them, taking the attitude of a musician preparing for a recital.

“They work on target words, articulation, pronouncing,” Christman said. “The dogs react. They listen, react to the voice of the child. They’re really reading to the dogs, and the dogs enjoy it.”

At the end of the recent session, Happy Jack the bulldog collapsed in a heap on the floor and Dudley the black Lab looked like he was ready for a nap.

A dark-haired girl in a navy blue sweatshirt who was walking Hercules, the Coton de Tulear, turned over his leash to Lazich and hurried off to music class.

A red-haired boy who had been counting the days until the dogs’ visit said he was sad to see them go. In two weeks, however, the dogs would be back, but not before they offered their thanks.

“The dogs send thank you cards,” Lazich said. “Little cards with their pictures saying ‘Thank you for reading to me.’”

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 302 or