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Teacher's puppy therapy program encourages 1st graders to read

Posted at 8:08 PM, Mar 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-01 20:08:20-05

A Delaware teacher says a program that brings foster puppies into the classroom is helping students improve their reading skills.

Brooke Hughes, who has been teaching first grade for the past 12 years at Hanby Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, told "Good Morning America" she was inspired to start the reading program after she began fostering puppies during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

"I just couldn't stop thinking of all the amazing benefits that the puppies could bring to the actual classroom," the first grade teacher said. "It could bring so much mental health support and reading support, not only for the students, but for the staff too."

Once students returned to the classroom full-time, Hughes said she wrote a proposal to bring dogs into the school.

Hughes' program, called Foster Tales Puppy Therapy, officially launched in January 2023, after a one-day trial run proved successful.

"[Hanby Principal Juliet Agresti] let me bring in three puppies for one day to see how it went and it was amazing. It brought so much joy to the school," Hughes said. "The puppies just lifted everyone's spirits and ever since then, we haven't had many days without puppies in our school."

Since then, Hanby Elementary has welcomed over 50 foster puppies, typically between 6 to 12 weeks old, from Rags 2 Riches Animal Rescue in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania, into several of the school's classrooms.

"People think that my classroom must be a zoo and straight chaos. But the puppies are actually very calming," Hughes said, adding that the puppies "usually sleep most of the day." "Our productivity is up because [the students] have to get all their work done to have puppy time."

Students and their parents sign up to care for puppies on weeknights and during the weekends and Rags 2 Riches Animal Rescue handles financial costs and all the care and necessities a puppy needs during their time with Hanby Elementary families. According to Hughes, the foster puppies also get adopted within a couple of weeks.

A year into the program, Hughes said she has noticed various benefits for the young 6-year-olds she teaches.

"We're collecting data on the reading scores from fall to spring, compared to other years [where] we didn't have puppies. And just from fall to winter, we've noticed almost a 32% increase," Hughes said. "My class makeup was very similar and so we're just so excited to see the final results from fall to spring. It's mostly just extra practice because they're eager -- they want to read and they want to practice, and that is going to always increase scores."

Students' reading and math scores have been on the decline in recent years, due in part to the pandemic. A 2023 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress found average reading scores for 13-year-olds for the 2022–23 school year decreased by 4 points when compared to the 2019–20 school year.

Hughes said she has seen the downward trend firsthand but said her experimental foster puppy and reading program has helped with the ongoing issue, getting kids to pick up a book and practice their skills more.

"Even the kids that have a hard time reading … and they didn't want to pick up a book and they were frustrated, [now] they can't wait to read to the puppies," Hughes said. "The puppies don't care if you get stuck on a word. The puppies don't care if you try to read one word for five minutes. They're just happy to sit in your lap. So, so much confidence has come from this program as well."

Along the way, Hughes said the students have also learned other life skills too, such as empathy, compassion, responsibility and communication.

It's also not just the students who have benefited from having the animals nearby.

"I call it a win-win-win-win ... the staff benefits because we like coming to school with puppies, the students benefit from learning so many life skills, the puppies benefit because they're getting out of the shelter and loved on completely, and then the rescue benefits because we're freeing up another spot at the rescue for another animal to be saved. So four-way win, can't beat it," Hughes said.

Tish Mayo, the director of Rags 2 Riches Animal Rescue, told "GMA" the organization is "so proud and honored" to partner with Hanby and Hughes for the Foster Tales Puppy Therapy program.

"I remember seeing the excitement in Brooke's eyes when we would discuss the program and its potential to help the kids and the puppies. I hope to see more schools get inspired by learning about the Foster [Tales] Program," Mayo said in an emailed statement.