MARBLEHEAD — Like many of the students in Emily Glore’s first-grade classroom at Epstein Hillel School, Oscar loves recess and circle time, curiously greets visitors, and doesn’t always give the teacher his full attention.
But in other ways, Oscar is significantly different from his classmates. He’s a 2½-year-old miniature goldendoodle who has lived with Glore and her husband since he was a young puppy.
Last fall, Glore brought Oscar to Epstein Hillel to become a full-time member of her class, participating in lessons from reading to empathy. And from all reports, the experiment has been a howling success.
“As we started out, we had three main goals,” explained Head of School Amy Gold. “The primary goal was inspired by research that shows children have improved in their reading skills when reading to a dog. The secondary goal centered on developing the kind of empathy, compassion, and sense of responsibility that accompanies caring for an animal. And the third goal was to use Oscar’s presence as a way to help students cope with stress.”
Especially in this last respect, Oscar’s furry reach has extended well beyond one first-grade classroom in this independent Jewish day school for grades K-8. School psychologist Nancy Harrison’s office is across the hall from Glore’s classroom, and sometimes Harrison or the school’s learning specialist will “borrow” Oscar for some one-on-one time with a student from another grade.
“He is a guru of unconditional love,” Harrison said. “Oscar never gives any child the feeling that he doesn’t want to be with them. They can stroke his ears, rub his belly, talk to him. If your best friend isn’t smiling at you and you’re thinking that she’s mad at you, and then Oscar comes over and snuggles with you, suddenly things aren’t so bad.”
It’s not only the kids who benefit from Oscar’s campus presence. Harrison, who has never worked in a school system with a full-time dog before this year, has noticed that staff members blossom under Oscar’s attention as well.
“I’ve seen stressed-out teachers play ball with Oscar and immediately switch from being wound up to laughing and becoming more lighthearted,” Harrison said. “Some of the faculty play with Oscar before school starts, and it helps them begin their day with a big smile.”
There’s no question among the 13 first-graders in Glore’s classroom that Oscar is a favorite — and they cite a wide range of reasons.
“Now that Oscar is in the room, I’ve learned I can work with some distractions without it actually distracting me,” said 6-year-old Maayan.
Her classmate, Leo, appreciates Oscar for his comfort skills.
“Once at recess I fell down on the ground and hurt myself,” he recounted. “Oscar came over to me and soon I felt better.”
“Oscar has helped me one million times,” declared Shoshana. “Whenever I have trouble with my reading, I can go to Oscar and pet him a little bit.”
Indeed, Shoshana’s statement validates Glore’s initial hypothesis.
“The research says one of the best things about children reading to dogs is it takes away the pressure,” Glore said. “Every teacher tries not to pressure kids while reading, but a dog doesn’t have to try. It’s a loyal listening ear that isn’t going to have any judgment on the child whatsoever.”
According to a 10-week study at the University of California, Davis, third-graders who read aloud to a dog for 10 to 15 minutes once a week boosted their reading fluency by 12 percent.
In addition to literacy, Oscar’s presence augments other skills that first-graders are gradually developing.
“Teaching in the 21st century includes what we call soft skills, as opposed to things like reading, math, and coding,” said Glore. “Soft skills include leadership, empathy, and compassion.”
Having a dog in the classroom helps to teach those skills. “Every day, one child is assigned to be in charge of Oscar’s care,” Glore said. “That means being sure there’s water in his bowl and giving him a snack. At recess, Oscar goes out to the playground with them on a leash. They all want to walk him, and they have learned to negotiate with one another for turns.”
Glore prepared for Oscar’s September classroom debut by working over the summer with a trainer.
Though his expertise was in preparing dogs for military or police work, the trainer adapted his program to accommodate what a school setting might require. They would often take the dog to a park that is popular with children so that Oscar could be exposed to noise and activity.
Not only did the trainer work with Oscar and his owner on basic obedience, but also on recognizing the cues that suggest someone might feel anxious in a dog’s presence.
Harrison, the school psychologist, refers to Oscar only half-jokingly as a member of the staff, but to the children he is more like a peer. They have given him his own Hebrew name — Hav Hav (bow-wow), which comes from a book about a dog that the Hebrew studies teacher reads to the class — and the boys occasionally place their yarmulkes on Oscar’s furry head.
“One of them even asked if we could have a ‘bark’ mitzvah for Oscar,” Glore said.
Ellie Tiagai, the mother of a first-grader, admitted that she wasn’t sold on the idea when Glore first brought it up with the parents. “At the beginning, I had reservations. I was worried about allergies and kids who might be scared of dogs,” Tiagai recalled.
But Glore explained that goldendoodles are low-allergen dogsthat generally don’t cause reactions, even among people with dog allergies.
“It has turned out to be a wonderful experience for the kids,” Tiagai said. “Taking care of Oscar together has given them a nice shared feeling of responsibility. Now all the other classes want a dog also.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.