Riley is a model of behavior at school. She’s always prepared, works hard and helps others in the classroom.
“She helps several students reach their goals,” said A.F. Palmer Elementary principal Jamie Bernard.
“She’s a natural,” said teacher Rhonda Ashley, a Curriculum Instructor/AIS Service Provider at Palmer.
You could call Riley a teacher’s pet. In fact, you should. Riley is a 72-pound black Lab Ashley has trained as a therapy dog to help improve students’ reading, ease their anxiety and increase their confidence.
“This is Riley’s calling, no doubt. She can transition from a school to a nursing home to a hospital. She knows when she’s going to work and she knows what her job is,” said Mrs. Ashley.
Riley’s first day on the job at Palmer was April 11, 2011 when she was nine weeks old. Ashley added a yellow Lab, Gracie, also when she was nine weeks old, two years later. The pair have helped dozens of students overcome a range of issues to be more productive in the classroom.
“Students who are shy, emotionally upset, struggle with reading, who have attention disorders and spectrum disorders, have made tremendous gains because of the therapy dogs,” said Mrs. Ashley.
Teachers have been able to use time with the dogs as incentive for good behavior. One student had a "race for Riley" to accumulate time via good behavior. One of the jobs Riley and Gracie do best is listen to children read.
“They helped me with my reading because they didn’t judge me when I made a mistake. When I read on the carpet to them, it was fun,” said 7th-grader Eric Miller, who worked with the dogs in third grade. “I wasn’t shy but was more awkward than the other kids. They helped me learn how to talk to people because I talked to them.”
“I was having trouble with anxiety and they helped me calm down. I have a dog at home but she’s not a therapy dog. I see therapy dogs as being nice and helping people with depression and anxiety,” said 7th grader Kate Pessarchick.
While Pessarchick worked with Riley and Gracie in 3rd grade, the dogs’ impact stayed with her if she ever felt anxious years later.
“I just remembered them and it put a smile on my face,” said Pessarchick.
Not only do former students remember the dogs, they remember Mrs. Ashley.
“My favorite part of reading is when you brought your dogs in to us,” wrote Hunter Greene in a letter to Mrs. Ashley. “Your help in math lead me to become a mathlete.”
The dogs have helped some students with special needs not only mainstream into a general education setting, but also thrive when they do so.
“Having a therapy dog provided a sense of comfort to students who are on sensory overload or suffering from anxiety. The dog serves as a source of comfort, peace, and an opportunity to distract and eliminate the stressor being experienced by the child,” said parent Denise Riley.
Riley and Gracie are part of the READ (Reading Education Assistance Dog) program. Ashley has a third dog at home she is currently training to become a therapy dog. She sees her and society’s use of service dogs expanding.
“Volunteering is important to me and the dogs enjoy the time that they spend in each setting just as much as I do,” said Ashley.