Maya, a placid golden retriever, listened, yawned and accepted treats. When she disappeared under a table, two 6-year-olds promptly followed. This was Maya's third outing to Bear Creek Elementary School, where she is being read to, petted, cuddled and generally fussed over by excited youngsters.
On Tuesday it was Victoria Joyce's and Josu White's turn to read to Maya.
"Does she like to see the pictures?'' Victoria asked, waving a book about a lion and mouse.
Maya's visits to Bear Creek began after her owner, Bobbie Mosher, volunteered the pet.
"I asked them, have you heard of a dog that helps children, that they read to?'' recalled Mosher, 71.
The school had. Some years before, another dog sat to hear Bear Creek students read, said curriculum specialist Stacey Endicott. Offered the opportunity again, Endicott was eager to reprise the program, whose goal is to reinforce independent reading and boost confidence.
"This is a great opportunity for them to read in a risk-free environment,'' principal Paula Texel said.
"Dogs don't judge. A lot of the children's fear is in making mistakes. We try to give them many opportunities to practice their reading. This is just another way to build their confidence.''
Andrea Zahn, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County School District, said Bear Creek appears to be the only school in the district offering the read-to-a-dog program.
On Tuesday, Josu and Victoria took turns reading several books — including Save Paper, Save Trees, A Frog Grows and Changes and Big Friend, Little Friend — to Maya, who sported a red, white and blue kerchief and purple leash. When one of the children hesitated on a word, the other helped. When either skipped a difficult word, Mosher, once a teacher's aide, helped.
"Victoria, do you know that word? Sound it out. Si … si … simple,'' she said.
"Read a little louder so Maya can hear you,'' she coaxed.
Mosher said she got the idea of taking Maya to schoolchildren after learning about the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, started in 1999 by Intermountain Therapy Animals, a nonprofit organization in Salt Lake City. Now offered nationwide at schools, libraries and other facilities, the program has local volunteers in Palm Harbor, Port Richey, Safety Harbor and Tampa. It also has expanded beyond dogs to include a menagerie of cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, a parrot and even miniature horses, said Lesley Pulsipher, national READ coordinator.
At Bear Creek, Maya has begun visiting mostly first-graders, who leave their classrooms for individual reading sessions.
"The children, they really love the attention,'' said first-grade teacher Mary Reed. "That dog sits there with its big brown eyes, and the children come back so happy.''
For Josu, it's all about being able to hear himself read.
"In the group, everybody is reading at once,'' he said. "I like to read alone.''
Each child spends about 10 minutes reading to Maya — after a proper introduction.
"Since they are children she hasn't met before, we want a kind of warmup period,'' Mosher said.
She might ask whether they have a pet.
"I have a German shepherd. Her name is Natalie Cole,'' Josu said. He also has a bird called Miles Davis and a pig named Ella Mae Fitzgerald, he said.
Victoria, who doesn't have a dog, bird or pig, plied Mosher with questions about Maya.
"Is she breathing?" she asked. "When does Maya go to sleep?"
Mosher, who has four children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild, answered patiently and gently refocused the child's attention to reading.
Mosher said she and her husband, Don, adopted Maya almost two years ago from an organization called Adopt a Golden in Atlanta. The dog came to them without obedience training, said Mosher, who taught Maya to sit, stand, lie down and give her paw. She also got her certified as a therapy dog.
Mosher hopes to complete training that would allow her and Maya to become one of more than 1,800 active, registered READ teams across the country.
As she prepared to leave Bear Creek last week, Reed's first-grade class crowded around Maya.
"You'll get a turn the next time,'' Reed told a wistful little boy.
"I'm just trying to go around the room so everybody gets a chance,'' she said later. "That's the beauty of it. They are really excited about it.''
Endicott, the curriculum specialist, added: "We would definitely like to expand this program. We have seen the benefit of it.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or 892-2283.