Beyond the Books: canine, volunteer help kids develop confidence reading

Gunnar, a golden retriever, listens to a student read.

Collar around his neck and owner alongside, golden retriever Gunnar strolls casually down the hall toward Arthur Elementary School's library.

Tail swaying side to side, the nine-year-old canine stops to greet students, gladly taking a scratch under the chin or a pat on the top of the head.

Even the school's principal can't resist Gunnar's bold brown eyes, exchanging a treat for a few trained tricks.

Gunnar is used to the looks by now, the grins from children, their wide eyes fixated on the dog's golden coat.

His status cemented as a fixture of the Arthur community, Principal Angelia Hoyer acknowledges both Gunnar and owner Pete Larson's role at school.

"Pete and Gunnar are just, they go to Arthur," said Hoyer with a nod. "They're part of the Arthur family. So as much as everybody loves him and they get excited, he's just us."

The tandem is a big part of the Arthur community, volunteering two days each week with a special mission.

"We're a READ team, and READ is an acronym for Reading Education Assistance Dog," explained Pete. "I just drive the car and hold the other end of the leash and Gunnar does his thing."

The two spend between three and four hours per week in the library, helping students with their reading proficiency.

Arthur staff administers weekly reading evaluations, getting a sense of those who may be struggling.

"We look at their reading scores, we look at their self-esteem, and we look at their belief," said Hoyer. "We're catching the kids when they are having difficulties with some of the beginning skills."

Pete and Gunnar interact with roughly 16 students per year, focusing not only on fluency, accuracy and comprehension from a reading standpoint, but also working on socialization and self-esteem.

Hoyer said the students see improvements across the board and beyond.

"Better than the numbers is how the kids will come out and say, 'Yeah, I'm going to go read to Gunnar,'" said Hoyer. "Well, prior to that, they would never say, 'I'm going to go read.' That's the biggest piece of growth that I can't put on paper."

Pete said he and Gunnar intend to volunteer at Arthur (and elsewhere) as long as they are able, and wrote in an email: "There is NOTHING more important for any person (young or old) than the ability to read. Nothing whatsoever! This is the most important thing parents can do and teach their kids to do. Read to them and teach them. It comes easy for some, but not most. Once they master reading, they can learn anything and master anything they choose!"

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