Furry friends from Gabriel’s Angels foster strong readers

Reading to pets can help improve kids literacy skills.

Students at Humphrey Elementary in Chandler were among the first to try the new Animals, Books and Children program — ABC for short — by Gabriel’s Angels, a local nonprofit that offers healing pet therapy for at-risk kids.

ABC pairs kids with a pet-therapy team for fun and furry reading sessions that help improve children’s literacy skills and social engagement.

The Chandler students got a weekly visit from Hank the Labrador Retriever and Yankee Doodle, a Golden Doodle.

“They are both so incredible with the children, because there’s just naturally a good connection there between dogs and kids,” says Stephanie Shuey, student services coordinator at the Chandler school. “And [the kids] get so excited to see them. Once they started the program, I’ve had students come up to me almost daily to ask, ‘When do we get to go read again?’ ”

Gabriel’s Angels’ traditional pet therapy caters to groups of 10-12 children and focuses on caring and empathetic interactions with the dogs, including petting, bathing and feeding. The ABC program offers individual literacy sessions that give kids a comfortable and non-judgmental setting for improving reading skills.

Nearly 40 percent of at-risk fourth graders read below fundamental levels, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Development. Gabriel’s Angels works with 15,000 Arizona kids annually through crisis nurseries, domestic violence shelters, group homes and after-school programs, so its volunteers were uniquely positioned to help young readers.

“We did a pilot program back in late fall of 2016 where we worked with a couple of Title I schools,” says Michele Shipitofsky, chief development officer of Gabriel’s Angels. “It’s a 20-minute session, once a week, and usually we see three or four kids for that session. So each child gets that one-on-one time with the pet therapy team to read to the dog.”

Shipitofsky says the ABC program uses standardized testing, so coordinators can see direct results in reading improvement. Each pet therapy team consists of a dog and its owner, who uses a “doggy first” language designed to make kids feel more at ease while reading.

“They are taught our curriculum, so it’s our specific books and our specific language on how to interact with the children,” says Shipitofsky, explaining how the pet therapist will say things like: “Fluffy didn’t really understand how you said that word. Can you try that word again for her?”

“It’s a difference in the approach rather than just telling the child to do it again,” she explains. “The idea is to always have positive reinforcement … because we want them to feel accomplished and to make strong strides.”


Reading to a dog awaiting adoption at the Arizona Animal Welfare League. Photo courtesy of Arizona Animal Welfare League.

Reading with Fido

These Valley nonprofits offer programs that encourage literacy as children read to pets.

Arizona Animal Welfare League
15 N. 40th Place, Phoenix
602-273- 6852 • aawl.org/cyo
The Create Your Own program offers kids the opportunity to read with a furry friend as one of AAWL’s many animal interaction activities. Ages 5-12 can read to dogs, ferrets, rabbits, chinchillas and more with adult supervision. Kids can bring their own books or read one provided. Cost is $120 per group of 10 kids and 10 chaperones.

Arizona Humane Society
1521 W. Dobbins Road, Phoenix
602-997-7585 • azhumane.org/reading-fur-fun
Kids ages 8-11 can sign up for monthly reading sessions with dogs who are awaiting adoption. This program is aimed at promoting both literacy skills and social skills in the dogs before they go to their forever homes. Kids are encouraged to dress up like their story book characters and can bring their own books to read or choose one AHS provides.

Gabriel’s Angels
727 E. Bethany Home Road, Suite C-100, Phoenix
602-266-0875 • gabrielsangels.org
The new Animals, Books and Children program pairs kids with a pet-therapy team (dog and owner) for fun and furry reading sessions that help improve children’s literacy skills and social engagement. The program is for first through third grades at Title I schools.

Paws 2 Read
Valleywide • paws2read.org
This nonprofit pet therapy program offers kids a chance to read with a variety of animals including cats, birds and even a pig. The program creates a non-judgmental environment for children to increase literacy skills, self-esteem and a love of reading. Several libraries across the Valley have partnered with Paws 2 Read for monthly, 90-minute sessions.