Making a Splash

‘Coolest dog ever’ assists with reading at PDS

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SIERRA VISTA— Reading in a soft and deliberate tone, Pueblo del Sol first-grader Iliana Luna stopped suddenly and both she and fellow first-grader Tucker Nogales looked up with wide smiles.

Splash, a veritable celebrity on the school campus, had plopped his head down right smack in the middle of Luna’s book.

“I think he was trying to read it,” Title I Teacher Lisa Wilkinson said.

Sharon Raymond had already established Splash, her golden retriever, was having a “goofy” day. He’s normally calm but was especially placid on Tuesday, perhaps because of the cold weather.

Soon he started to warm up, emotionally if not physically, and gave Nogales some kisses to the ear following a goodbye hug, sending a giggling Nogales tumbling backwards.

Nogales and Luna are among two of 16 students who take 15-minute shifts with Splash every week, a privilege that also happens to get a lot of the school’s struggling readers on track with the rest of their classmates. Sporting a variety of certifications, Splash is a member of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program and has been coming to Pueblo del Sol for nearly three years.

“The shyer kids always open up more with the dog,” Wilkinson said. “They’re reluctant readers because they’re afraid of making mistakes but when they’re with the dog, they relax and read away.”

But Splash is only part of the team, he’s accompanied by the two Sharons, Raymond and Selvy, who wear matching red shirts with blue paw prints on the front. While it’s clear they’re both dog lovers, Raymond and Selvy are also retired teachers, which Wilkinson said is really good for the kids because they know how to help the kids read without reading for them.

There was also one other member of the team, Selvy’s golden retriever, Toby, who died last year.

“They still talk about Toby sometimes” Wilkinson said. The school counselor recommended that the students write about their favorite moments with Toby and they created a book, complete with photos.

“There were some tears,” Wilkinson said. But it helped them work through their emotions and allowed some of the students to share their experiences of losing a pet.

When Toby died, it was kind of sad for second-grader Greg Jones but he said he’s used to working with Splash. “If Splash died, I would cry.”

Splash perked-up and ran over when Jones and the second batch of readers when they came into the classroom.

“Every time Splash sees me, he comes to me and he wants to snuggle with me and he kisses me for some reason. I don’t know why,” Jones said. His dad is deployed in Afghanistan, so Jones said Splash keeps him company.

While Jones insists he gives Splash the most treats, second-grader Laska Cortes takes charge of the water.

“Want more?” she asked, pouring some in his cup. “Yep, he’s going for it.”

Soon the students might get to meet a new friend, as Selvy is getting her new golden retriever, Cody, ready for his Canine Good Citizen test. The dogs must be calm, obedient and react well to being startled in order to be used in the program and be covered by liability insurance.

Retrievers are ideal because of their calm, friendly temperament, they make great “petting machines,” Selvy said. 

The philosophy of the program is that when the kids read to the dogs everything else fades into the background, making them calm and focused.

It also gives the kids something to look forward to each week, Selvy said. “Dog day is a special day.”

Raymond said that most of the kids she’s worked with in the last three years have graduated out of the program and returned to their regular classroom. The dogs help them learn to enjoy reading, so it’s not a chore anymore.

Raymond and Selvy were recently honored as part of the 13th anniversary ceremony for the R.E.A.D. program and the San Pedro Kiwanis Club’s Just for Kid Foundation volunteered to buy books for the Title I kids at the school.

She thinks the program has been really great for the kids, and it’s good for Splash too, Raymond said. “He just really loves coming to school.”

Each Tuesday when she tells Splash it’s time to go, he hops right in the car. Raymond said if she let him go at the school office he walk straight across campus and put his nose on the classroom door.

“This is really what he’s supposed to do,” she said. “The whole school knows who he is.”

Though Splash has a lot of fans, Jones may just be the most vocal of the bunch. He had one special request for this article.

“Put that Splash is the coolest dog ever,” Jones said. “Please!”

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