SUMNER — It’s hard to tell that 9-year-old Gabrielle —who’s reading “Pony Pals: Pony to the Rescue” out loud with ease —has selective mutism and sometimes can’t speak at school or in other social settings because of a childhood anxiety disorder.
It’s late Friday morning and Gabrielle sits cross-legged on top of a blanket on the floor of the Hartford-Sumner Elementary School reading room as she reads from her chapter book. She’s surrounded by three friends she’s grown comfortable with — Meri Levesque, Jasmine and Smokey — the latter two are of the canine persuasion.
Levesque runs the local Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program with her two rescue dogs from Louisiana. The goal is to help Gabrielle, and children like her, improve their reading and communication skills by reading to dogs.
Gabrielle continues to read and the pony story takes a turn for the almost worst when a character needs a first aid kit. Gabrielle comes across the word antiseptic and reads it with confidence, not stumbling over it or needing to sound it out.
“Wow, oh my gosh. That’s great Gab,” Levesque tells her.
Gabrielle smiles and keeps reading until she finishes Chapter 9 in her Pony Tales book as 4-year-old yellow lab and golden retriever mix Jazzy sits by her right side and 8-year-old blue curr and black lab mix Smokey lies at her feet.
“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” Levesque exclaims to Gabrielle. “I’m so proud of you.”
Things didn’t always go as smoothly in the reading classroom with Gabrielle. When she became a READ program participant last year, she would come down with a friend and listen while petting Smokey, Levesque said. By the end of the last school year, she would still come down with a friend, but began reading herself. This year, Gabrielle is the last reader of the day and now answers Levesque’s questions and sometimes initiates conversation on her own. She also walks Levesque and the dogs down to the main office to sign them out at the end of the Friday program.
“Best of all, she reads loudly and clearly to both my READ dogs and it has been a rewarding experience for myself, Smokey and Jazz,” Levesque said about Gabrielle. “Once she opened up and felt safe with us, she just shines when we see her.”
It’s through this kind of encouragement — on top of assistance from a speech pathologist and other professionals — that Gabrielle is able to speak and respond during what could be stressful social situations. Gabrielle is hesitant to answer the reporter’s questions, but manages to as she pets Smokey. She said she enjoys reading to the dogs. She goes on and answers a follow-up question about whether Smokey was the only dog in the program when she first started coming to READ.
“It was just Smokey then it was her,” she says as she points to Jazz.
It’s not just Gabrielle who reads to Levesque, Smokey and Jazz. There’s 13-year-old Will, who was one of the first READ participants of the day. He reads from one of the many Magic School Bus books and Levesque recalls how the teen was a little rough with the dogs last year.
“You’ve learned how to be gentle with the dogs and hug them nicely,” she said.
Will agrees as he pets Jazzy and then shows how he taught Smokey to shake. It took a few times, but apparently Will can teach an old dog new tricks.
Next up is 10-year-old RJ, who Levesque described as having “the cutest dimples” and who’s reading has vastly improved since he’s been reading to Smokey and Jazz. He’s reading from a chapter book called “Sailing Home.” He came across the word inflammable and read it without any trouble.
“RJ that’s a a big word for you, wow. Oh my gosh you’re doing so great,” Levesque tells him.
“Thanks,” he responds and keeps reading on.
He doesn’t pause much, except to correct himself when he first read geography as “geo-grafey.” He reads that one of the characters named Albert doesn’t like school and played hooky a lot.
“Do you know what that means?” Levesque asks.
“No,” RJ answers.
“It means that he skipped school,” Levesque says.
“That’s bad,” RJ comments.
Not only do Levesque, Smokey and Jazzy help children improve their reading and social skills, they also help instill morals and give good advice. Seven-year-old Adam, who Levesque said is a connoisseur of colored glasses, brought “Bingo’s Ice Cream Cone” to read. After finishing the book, Adam talks about it.
“I would never feed a dog ice cream,” he said, noting that chocolate is bad for dogs, to which Levesque agreed. “I would give them a treat after I had ice cream.”
To learn more about the READ program, contact Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org.