Dogs star as reading coaches in Boynton Beach after-school programs

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- Just when it seems there could not be another drop of kid energy crammed into the after-school room at In the Pines North, Max the bull mastiff trundles in.

The kids have been waiting and watching, and they cheer Max's arrival.

Who knew a 140-pound dog could be a reading coach?

Max is part of a program where kids who have trouble reading in front of a group magically lose their shyness when they read to a dog.

Each student reads a page or two while Max alternately curls up, stretches out and sits up.

Then his owner, Tina Cicolella of suburban Boca Raton, coaxes Max to read to the kids. With doggie treats dangled in front of his nose, Max "reads": "Rf,,,," he says, invoking giggles from his audience.

Cicolella and Max are part of Share-A-Pet, a nonprofit group that sends dogs to hospitals and nursing homes. Max had been to all those places, but this was his first time working with a group of children.

"Tina told me, 'I want to use Max with children. Can you be the experiment?' " said Donna Goray, who runs the volunteer after-school program at In the Pines, an affordable housing development west of Boynton Beach. "I said, 'Absolutely.' The kids positively love it."

Max and Tina were trained for a month, then visited nursing homes with an observer. They have been evaluated three times and further trained for reading work, before "experimenting" on In the Pines North.

Share-A-Pet was started in 2003 by Sachin Mayi in Broward County and has 450 active volunteers from Miami to Palm Beach.

"For kids there is a stigma about working with a reading person, but working with a dog, they get more outgoing and more eager to read," said Chantal Uppstrom, the group's South Florida director. Eventually, reading to a dog becomes something of a status symbol.

This school year Share-A-Pet got a grant to expand the Pawsitive Reading program and hopes to add more schools to the six it has in Palm Beach County.

One function of the grant is to help the group quantify the successes with helping children read.

Mayi's brother Michael was severely injured in an accident 20 years ago, and during his own subsequent soul-searching, Mayi, who is his brother's guardian, decided he wanted to serve people who were suffering.

He began visiting nursing homes alone but later brought along his dog Tenzin, a yellow lab. It was obvious that bonding with people went much quicker with a dog in tow.

"It was an aha moment," said Mayi. "We've seen how getting kids to feel comfortable reading changes everything about their personality and how they perform in all their subjects."

Max passed his reading-coach test with flying colors. Goray asked him back to add In the Pines South, west of Delray Beach, to his schedule.

The kids stayed to get just one last stroke on his broad, smooth back, and Max thumped the floor with his stout ropelike tail.

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