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A “tail” of two reading buddies

By Staff | May 8, 2012

At Renn Elementary School in Lairdsville, Morgan, a golden retriever and certified therapy dog, settles down on the rug, ready to listen to Katha Elser’s kindergarten students read their favorite books.

Katha Elser teaches kindergarten at the Carl G. Renn Elementary School in Lairdsville. Elser has taught in the East Lycoming School District for 23 years, and will be retiring in June. She started her teaching career as a second grade teacher in 1971, taking time off to raise three children before resuming teaching in 2000. In the following years, she found a way to combine her love of teaching and dogs.

Elser remarked, “I first became interested in the canine reading assistance program as a Title I reading teacher. I observed the program in use at the Selingsgrove School District, and felt it would benefit my intervention students.” Her golden retriever, Morgan, attended canine obedience classes, passed the required behavioral assessments, and became certified as a therapy dog. She has made school visits, as well as visits to libraries, skilled nursing facilities, and the Family Promise program.

When Morgan is at school, her job as a reading buddy is simple. Morgan is a patient, non-judgmental listener for beginning and struggling readers. Elser commented that Morgan has a very gentle temperament and tolerance for noise, background activity, and occasional steps on the tail, or unending hugs. She is a great motivator, always ensuring that the reading experience is enjoyable and memorable.

When Elser was a Title I teacher, she organized Family Puppy Love Reading Nights that were held at the Joseph C. Ashkar Elementary School in Hughesville. She contacted therapy dog owners from the surrounding areas, and arranged for them to attend the sessions. In addition to the buddy reading, a dog related program was presented. Refreshments were served, and all students received a “doggy bag” and a stuffed dog.

Morgan has also been used as a teaching tool for dog safety and pet care. She is known by all Renn students and is always welcomed with open arms. In discussions about Morgan with several of Mrs. Elser’s kindergarten students, one girl shared, “We had Morgan’s birthday party and it was awesome! She swallowed her cupcake in one bite.”

Another young girl mentioned, “Morgan likes butterflies.” When asked how she knew that, she replied, “We read about butterflies and Morgan smiled. ” To answer what books makes her smile, she said “Butterflies, same as Morgan.”

When the girl went back to her table, a boy came up to the desk and said, “Duck books make me smile.” Maybe next time Morgan comes to visit Mrs. Elser’s kindergarten classroom, the boy will read a book about ducks to her.

Looking forward, Elser said, ” I would like to do volunteer work at school, and at the Geisinger Children’s Hospital in Danville. ” She will be training a second dog in August, and already has chosen the name Sophie for the puppy. “That’s why I want to get a second dog, so they can work in a team.” The experience is time-consuming, but Elser has always been passionate, and strongly committed to her family, her students, and her dogs.