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Teacher’s Pets

SitStayReadheaderDogs certainly can’t read, but they can help students develop critical early literacy skills. With insufficient funding, overworked teachers, and crowded classrooms, many low-income Chicago students are not getting the help they need to set them up for success. That’s where everyone’s best friend—dogs—can step in.

Enter SitStayRead, a Chicago non-profit that brings dogs into the classroom to increase students’ confidence and skills and generate excitement about reading. The organization was founded ten years ago by Mary Ellen Schneider and Sarah Murphy, two dog lovers who wanted to make a difference in the lives of Chicago’s at-risk students. Today, the group has nearly 300 active volunteers.

“Dogs have a special ability to lower students’ inhibitions in trying new things or leaving their comfort zones,” says Kate Lloyd, SitStayRead’s Board President and Interim Executive Director. “Children in at-risk communities tend to have limited opportunities to develop social emotional intelligence and to practice reading out loud with an adult. Reading out loud to a new stranger may be scary, but reading to a non-judgmental dog decreases inhibitions and allows the students to focus on the materials in a way that feels fun, and not like work.”

The benefits of dogs in the classroom are vast. Children relate to animals as friends, according to the International Reading Association’s research on canine-assisted reading programs. Animals help quell anxiety, facilitate coping, and reduce perceptions of discomfort, all of which contribute to success in the classroom.

SitStayRead’s dogs provide social benefits as well, Lloyd explains. “The dogs provide a safe forum to begin discussions about emotions,” she says. “For a young child, telling an adult that they are afraid of the bullies in their neighborhood may be threatening. However, starting a conversation about fears or anxieties our classroom dog may have, and how his person recognizes, understands, and manages those fears, allows us to create a broader conversation in which students feel safe sharing their personal experiences.”


SitStayRead offers multiple programs designed for students in first through fourth grade. The CPS elementary schools they work with all have significantly at-risk student populations, which means that at least 90 percent of the students live in poverty and a minimum of 60 percent of third graders test below grade level in reading.

“The students in our partner schools come from very challenging environments and often don’t have the advantage of one-on-one and small group educational experiences,” Lloyd says. “Bringing in fun, engaging, and dynamic programming allows us to help overcome some of those barriers to really create a love of reading that we hope will benefit these students throughout their lives.”

A typical classroom session involves a program leader, three Dog Teams (each team composed of one certified reading assistance dog and her human), and three to six additional volunteers, called Book Buddies.Book Buddies read aloud to the children in small groups, and then each child meets one-on-one with a Dog Team. During this time, students read to the dog, pet her, give her treats, and bask in doggie love and kisses. Later in the session, students write stories about dogs that echo the reading themes of the day and give them a chance to use their imaginations and gain confidence in their voices. To practice fluency, many of the children then read their stories aloud to the dogs.

SitStayRead1For its ten-year anniversary, SitStayRead collaborated with the Department of School Psychology at Loyola University to evaluate the success of its programs. They found that students who participated developed fluency at a rate 47.8 percent greater than their non-participating peers. And not surprisingly, 100 percent of participating students raved about the program.

“Chicago as a whole benefits when more of our students are fully educated and grow up to earn a family-supporting wage. Bringing dogs in to classrooms is our key to doing that, but it also does much more,” Lloyd says. “In Chicago’s at-risk neighborhoods, dogs are rarely pets, and are often used as tools of violence or intimidation. By teaching our students about dog safety, how to interact with dogs, and the wonderful benefits of caring for and loving an animal, we also hope we are creating a kinder, more understanding, and peaceful city—with lots of residents who enjoy reading with their dogs.”

What the Volunteers are Saying

SitStayRead’s amazing programs wouldn’t be possible without the help of their passionate volunteers. Here’s what some of them had to say about their experience with the organization.

On volunteering:

“My favorite part about volunteering with SitStayRead is giving the kids positive experiences with dogs. Some of the kids have had negative encounters and are frightened of them, so it is really rewarding to not only see the kids look forward to our weekly visits, but also see their reading skills improve from week to week.” – Adrienne Sheely volunteer since 2014

“I love how excited the kids are about our coming to the classroom. They so look forward to our visits. I also love to read the stories the kids write about our day’s book theme. They are much more imaginative and clever than I knew kids could be at such a young age.” – Susan Swaringen volunteer since 2013

On Success:

“One little girl was very shy—she hesitated to speak and was uncomfortable around my dog Macy. The other kids said she only spoke Spanish and couldn’t understand me. One week I taught my dog to say “hi” in Spanish by giving me her paw to shake when I said “hola.” The little girl was thrilled, and from then on was eager to be in our reading group and excited to be with Macy.” – Susan Swaringen

“One child was very nervous the first day and did not want my dog Bandit near him. The second time I came he told me to come over with Bandit and that he was no longer scared. Bandit licked him and all was good—he laughed and had a huge smile on his face!” – Eileen Casey volunteer since 2010

On Dog Volunteers:

“[My dog] Stella really looks forward to the time she spends in the classroom and the attention she gets from the kids. When I get out her harness and SitStayRead bandana (which we call her “work uniform”) she spins in circles with excitement. Stella loves being a teacher!” – Adrienne Sheely


Images courtesy of SitStayRead


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