Shirley the Dog Makes Reading FUN

Therapy Dog Helps Children Read


As Paula Zaremski’s fourth graders enter her classroom at Garrison-Jones Elementary, they are welcomed into an atmosphere of encouragement. The walls are lined with pictures of animals. A word wall says “Leashing onto new words,” and on another wall, “Pounce on a purr-fect book.” Rules are posted as “Leash Laws,” and the student of the week is “Top Dog.”  There is a sense of happy anticipation, but it’s not all due to their environment; these fourth graders are excited about improving their reading scores.

Toward the back of the classroom Susan Woodman of Northwood Animal Hospital sits on an animal-themed carpet while a group of boys and girls pet a medium-sized black Labrador retriever named Shirley. They listen attentively as a classmate reads Cinderella Penguin. Shirley seems the most relaxed of them all.

Shirley made it through training to be a guide dog for the blind, but she didn’t pass the final test.  Handlers at Southeastern Guide Dogs knew the three year-old Lab would be a wonderful therapy dog. They recognized that Shirley had a special rapport with children. Susan Woodman was volunteering at Suncoast Animal League and spoke to its director, Rick Chaboudy, about using Shirley to help children become better readers.

“I remember him saying ‘I have the teacher for you.’ That’s how I got Paula Zaremski’s name,” Susan said. Paula already had her own dog, Goldilocks, a rescued Doxipoo, reading with her students in a program called Paws for Pioneers. Susan Woodman added, “I knew I was meant to be in this classroom because it’s based on animals. I felt at home here.”

Ms. Zaremski’s students learn together in an inclusion classroom while some utilize an individualized educational plan. With the assistance of ESE teacher (exceptional student education), Patricia Naylor, and ESE Associate, Diana Washnock, students are assessed twice per week on reading fluency. Research proves that oral fluency plays a key role in comprehension. Students read a timed grade-level passage aloud on Monday for the initial assessment and practice with parents and Shirley during the week. On Friday they are given a post test. The goal is for each student to accurately read one hundred words per minute in fourth grade.

“Because they are so motivated by Shirley, the majority of the students double their fluency rate by the end of the week,” Ms. Zaremski explained.


Shirley’s presence in the classroom is working in phenomenal ways. Some students have increased their lexile reading scores by three to four hundred points from the beginning of the year. An average year’s growth is one hundred points. “We have never had scores like this,” said Patricia Naylor. “Even though some were reluctant readers before, everything has fallen into place this year. We are so proud of their progress.”

If a student doesn’t show adequate improvement, he or she will miss one reading session with Shirley. For these fourth graders, that’s just not acceptable.

“Ms. Zaremski is taking the Sunshine State Standards that we teach the children and making it meaningful and purposeful every day. She makes learning fun while demanding accountability,” said Assistant Principal Toni Powers. “It’s authentic learning.”

District Literacy Coach Carolyn Glass has noticed the scores, too. “The numbers are so impressive, but when you see the kids’ faces . . . it’s all so worthwhile,” she said. “I’ve noticed that when Shirley is really enjoying the story and when the reader is reading fluently, Shirley puts her paw on the student’s lap.”

Perhaps the best way to understand why reading to Shirley is working so well is to hear it from the students. Tyler said, “I feel calm when I read to Shirley. She just helps me every time. If I get something wrong, no one cares. “

“When I go home and I have a book I want to finish I usually get my dog, Bacon, and we go to a quiet room and read,” Amanda said.

Kaitlyn reads to her dogs, too. “I read to my dog, Willow. She is calm and she lets me read to her. Shirley and my dogs have gotten me to read more.”

Lake likes reading to Shirley and tries not to miss his chance. “I feel like it’s an honor reading to Shirley,” he said. “I get most of my monthly Reading Counts points I can so I can read to her again.”

Shirley perked her ears up when Derrick spoke. “At first I was a horrible reader,” he said. “I was stuttering a lot, but Shirley has helped and my fluency has gotten better.”

Alannah added, “When I started, I couldn’t read so many words. It’s fun reading to a dog. She’ll just sit and listen. She’s very fluffy. It makes me feel happy inside.”

“With my own love of children and animals, the best way I could think to enhance learning in my classroom was by allowing that natural union of children and animals to come together. It’s turned out to be a winning combination,” Ms. Zaremski said. “It’s magical.”

Both Paula and Susan are hoping to bring more dogs into classrooms, not only at Garrison-Jones Elementary, but throughout the district. “I would love to have a dog in every school in Pinellas County—public and private,” said Susan Woodman.

“I’m looking forward so much to the program touching many more children in the next year,” the caring teacher added.

“There’s a culture of love for the animals in the classroom,” said Toni Powers. “This affects the whole child. I can see a difference.”

By Laura Kepner 

Article written for Destination Tampa Bay Magazine