Kenya Harris is stretched out in the story corner in a classroom at Annie Fisher School and struggling to sound out the word "thin." She sticks with it, then finally she gets it.
After working so hard, no one would blame the 8-year-old first-grader for feeling trepidation as she turns the page. Just then her audience, a cocker spaniel named Mtani, puts an end to the page-turning. He flops out on the book for a nap.
Kenya is thrilled. After a giggle, she slides the book out from under Mtani and turns the page with a fresh sense of optimism and cruises right through the next few pages. Mtani snuggles close, his blase attitude taking the fright out of reading.
Mtani and his owner, retired kindergarten teacher Daphne Wilcox, have been meeting individually with four first-graders since November to help them improve their reading skills. The theory is that struggling readers might be embarrassed to read in front of a class or even a teacher but that the dog provides a comforting, nonjudgmental audience.
Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Fanning got the idea last spring when her mother-in-law sent her a picture of a child reading to a dog that ran in a North Carolina paper. On a little note, she wrote: "Thought you might get a kick out of this."
Fanning was thrilled, but not by the novelty of it. "I said, `Oh, my gosh, we've got to do this in Hartford,'" Fanning said.
So she spent the summer researching the program, which started in Utah in 1999 when Intermountain Therapy Animals launched its Reading Education Assistance Dogs - R.E.A.D. - program. Since then, the program has caught on in libraries and schools throughout the country and in Israel, Japan, Canada and Singapore.
Fanning said she believes that Annie Fisher is the first school in the state to try the program, run locally under the name "Tails of Joy." The main idea is for students who are behind in reading to get some practice and enjoy the experience. Dogs don't correct or judge - although Wilcox does coach the readers through tough spots.
It's obvious that the youngsters enjoy sitting with Mtani - even when he closes his eyes and lies down for a snooze. Kenya doesn't perceive any disrespect from Mtani when he appears to be sleeping. She thinks he closes his eyes to help him concentrate. "He sounds out the words inside his mind. He likes to listen to people read so he can learn the words."
Chieyon Wilson-Williams, 6, interprets Mtani's relaxed stance as proof that he enjoys the stories. He confesses that he was a little afraid of Mtani when he first met the dog, but now he trusts that the dog won't bite him.
Chieyon's grandmother, Connie Wilson, who volunteers at the school, said that Chieyon's sessions with the dog have helped draw him out of depression brought on by the death of his baby sister.
"It's helped him a lot," she said. "At home, we see a change in him. Everything has picked up. He just got very quiet and now he's just out there."
While Wilcox, of Simsbury, coaches, she uses Mtani to coax children to try harder - alternately asking students to sound out or define words for the dog. Fanning said that teachers were at first skeptical and worried that the children might be afraid of the dog. But Wilcox and the dog attended a staff meeting and the teachers were set at ease. They selected students from their classes to read to Mtani.
The success of the program might be hard to measure through test scores.
But if the comments of Elvon Coleman, 7, are any gauge, then the program is a hit. "I like reading to Mtani because he always likes seeing me."
A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Rachel Gottlieb is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour.
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant