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Docile dog helps pupils tame reading

Though 3-year-old Sarah Morris is not a certified teacher, she really knows how to motivate young children to read.

For the past month, the black, 75-pound therapy dog has been visiting Niagara Street Elementary School on Thursdays to help pupils in kindergarten through second-grade who have difficulty with reading.

Sarah and her owner, retired West Seneca foreign language teacher Debbie Morris, take the children from Diana Jeckovich's class -- a group that needs extra help -- and work with them, two at a time, in a small reading room.

"Each child reads a book to Sarah while the other pets her. They take turns," Morris said.

"She told me she missed working with kids and wondered if her therapy dog could help out at our school," said Principal Paulette Pierce, a friend of Debbie Morris. "I told her I have wonderful children who would love to work with Sarah."

The dog motivates them to read because they want to read to her, or at least show her their books, Pierce said.

"We've found Sarah motivates them to sit down, focus and read," she said. "She gets them really interested in reading."

Pierce said she decided to have Sarah work with Jeckovich's children "who normally have a difficult time focusing on work, or even wanting to come to school or participate in school. But not on Thursdays. They are excited because they know Sarah's coming in."

Sarah is allowed in school because she is a licensed therapy dog who has been tested for good temperment and for her calm behavior among children.

Morris said she adopted Sarah, a rescue dog, from a shelter in North Carolina when she was 3 months old. She said she located Sarah through an organization called the Bright Star German Shepherd Rescue Group.

A Thursday with Sarah proved the dog's popularity.

The pupils who go to read with Sarah get to take her by the leash and walk her from their classroom to the reading room.

"Come on Sarah," said kindergartner Daminika Barber, 5, pulling on the leash when Sarah started heading for the front door instead of her classroom.

Niasia Scott, 6, a first-grader, read Sarah "The Blue Sea," a book about fish, and did a fine job as her reading partner, Hayden McClure, a 5-year-old kindergarten pupil, gave the dog some nice long pets.

Hayden smiled proudly as he read Sarah a book called "Eating Apples."

"It has all the ways to eat apples," he said, adding, "I practice [reading] at home so I can read to Sarah," Hayden said.

Their teacher is thrilled with the program.

"This is working very well," Jeckovich said. "Every day they practice reading the books out loud to us so they can read to Sarah. She's only been coming here a couple of weeks, but there has been a definite improvement. [Some of] these kids never picked up a book or pointed out a word in one before. But now they're excited because they get to read to the dog."

Morris said she has noticed signs of improvement, as well.

"From the first week I was here I had many students that would not open a book," she said. "Now every one of them can read Sarah a book or at least make up a story. So they are making some progress."

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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