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Introducing Baxter, the Reading Dog

Written by Lisa Abbott

When Heritage debuted a pilot of an innovative, ground-breaking approach to language arts instruction for fifth-grade students this year, it arrived in the unexpected and precious form of an adorable, ebony canine named Baxter the Reading Dog. The highly trained Portuguese Water Dog has become a popular and heartwarming addition to the school’s intermediate wing. His hallway and classroom presence elicits smiles and greetings from kids and adults alike as he accompanies his owner/handler and constant companion, Heritage fifth-grade teacher, Jen Miller.

But Baxter is more than just a cuddly guest. Three days each week, he performs a specific and important job: helping to facilitate and foster a language arts classroom environment that’s conducive to optimal learning. As a trained, certified and insured volunteer therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), it’s a role for which the 23-month-old puppy has prepared since birth.

Baxter with a young student

The puppy’s calm, easy-going temperament makes him well suited to spending his days with a classroom full of eleven-year-olds. One of his favorite spots is right in the middle of a small group of students, whom Miller has invited to join her in discussing the novel they’re currently reading and studying. The kids sit on the floor, cross-legged, encircling their furry friend on the fuzzy blanket that was Baxter’s Christmas present this year. It is custom-embroidered with the words, “Sit, Read, Stay.” While Miller engages her students in lively conversations, Baxter receives strokes of affection from them and reciprocates by giving them friendly kisses.

Students will open up and have more information to give, just by directing the conversation to Baxter. He intrinsically motivates students in a magical, unforeseen way that’s just mind-boggling.

But Baxter is much more than an ornamental member of the reading circle. Especially for students who struggle with anxiety about reading, he is non-judgmental listener and source of unconditional love and acceptance. Even for the kids for whom reading comes more easily, he has become an integral part of their language arts studies, thanks to Miller’s masterful, focused work.

She weaves Baxter into their literary conversations, posing questions that include him. “What would you tell Baxter about the way this character changes throughout the course of the story?” she asks. Hands shoot up with excited answers to her question. Often, the kids direct their responses as much to Baxter as to their teacher. This dog-student-teacher interaction is completely by design. Miller says her students are motivated by the dog’s presence. “Students will open up and have more information to give, just by directing the conversation to Baxter. He intrinsically motivates students in a magical, unforeseen way that’s just mind-boggling,” she says. “He’s like a reading whisperer.”

Research Behind the Approach

Miller’s observations parallel those of other educators who have explored the impact animals can make in educational settings. In her book, Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children (2001), Dr. Gail Melson, Purdue’s professor emerita of human development and family studies, says, “Dialogue with [animals] offers a time-out from the anxieties of human exchange…despite most children’s acknowledgement that pets cannot literally comprehend what they are saying, children have the feeling of being heard and understood.”

Educational researchers consistently point to the importance of actively engaging students in the process of reading. A 2006 study (Anderson and Olson) determined that interacting with a therapy dog seemed to encourage positive communication between students because the children saw the therapy dog as a supportive classroom “friend.” The authors suggest that dogs may have a calming effect on children aged six through eleven, by modeling acceptance, affection and trust.

Although the Heritage pilot in some ways mirrors the research-based methodology used by other similar national reading education programs, the program is unique to the school. Miller says it’s not unusual for therapy dogs and their volunteers to visit schools or libraries periodically, but her combined roles of owner, handler and classroom teacher are part of what differentiates the Heritage pilot program from others. Baxter’s consistent, three-day volunteer work schedule represents a significant and uncommon commitment as well.

Initial Feedback and Tangible Results

Miller says she already has seen tangible evidence that Baxter’s presence is making a difference in learning experiences for kids across a wide range of reading ability. She has tested several students, measuring their Lexile scores before and after spending instructional time with Baxter. She plans to administer three to four additional formal student assessments throughout the year.

Baxter's presence provides a supportive classroom "friend" for students.

The initial results have so far been unilaterally positive and encouraging. Six out of the eight students she tested showed significant improvement in their Lexile scores, after spending just eight weeks learning with Baxter.

Part of Miller’s research has included testing one fifth-grade student who struggled with reading anxiety. After just one session with Baxter, the student’s Lexile score soared by an astounding 367 percent. “Baxter helps him relax and calm his nerves, which helps him to focus and improves his comprehension,” says the student’s mother. “Baxter’s presence instills an attitude of comfort and confidence when he’s reading, helping him to focus on the task at hand and not worrying about his personal challenges. We’re thrilled to see that our son’s reading scores improved dramatically once he started working with Baxter. He’s a great reading buddy for him.”

Parent support for the unconventional initiative has been overwhelming, says Miller. Prior to launching the pilot program, she sent all fifth-grade parents a survey to gauge their potential interest in and support of having a trained reading therapy dog in their children’s classroom. Within 24 hours, 100 percent of the parents responded to the survey with enthusiasm for the new approach. She issued another survey a month later, requesting the parents’ input on the program’s initial effectiveness. One hundred percent of them voiced their approval and all of them said their children had mentioned Baxter to their parents at home.

How it All Began

Miller, a 25-year teaching veteran and serious dog lover, grieved over the 2014 deaths of her two beloved pet dogs. When she eventually entertained the idea of getting another pet, she recalled having seen a reading therapy dog program at a local library many years earlier. With a fervent desire to see her students succeed at reading, she began to wonder if she could find and train a dog for a similar purpose in her classroom. She started to research the prospect.

Based on its wonderful temperament, hypoallergenic fur and moderate size, the Portuguese Water Dog seemed like a natural breed to consider. Miller contacted a breeder in Elkhart, inquiring about a forthcoming litter of puppies. She also shared her vision with Brenda Klingerman, Heritage’s academic director and elementary/intermediate school principal. Klingerman immediately recognized the academic merit of the idea and responded enthusiastically to it. “It just made sense,” she says. “We began dreaming about what it could look like.” Before he had even been born, Miller says God had created a special plan of service for Baxter’s life.

Baxter with owner/handler, Jen Miller

Once the puppy arrived, he began an 18-month, intensive training process in order to meet the TDI certification requirements. When Miller brought Baxter on campus to visit campers at Heritage’s summer Eagle Care program during the summer of 2016, Klingerman says the positive response he received from kids and adults alike signaled that they were on to something. Out of her desire to positively impact her students with Baxter’s presence, Miller has provided the insurance coverage necessary for him to work on campus.

In September of 2016, Baxter graduated from the TDI program with flying colors and also earned his title certificate as a Canine Good Citizen from the American Kennel Club. He made his classroom debut on Nov. 1.

Every day since then, Baxter has brought joy and smiles to the Heritage students, parents and faculty who have met him. But just as importantly, Miller says he is helping her to achieve her preeminent goal of developing “not just proficient, but lifelong readers.” For the teacher, who once contemplated becoming a veterinarian, the unusual partnership with her puppy brings her personal and professional satisfaction. “The Lord put the passion and great love of being a teacher into my heart. My dream with Baxter was to marry my two passions of dogs and teaching kids,” she explains.

Miller credits her Cedarville professor, Ruth Anne Hille, for having fostered her own desire to cultivate students’ life-long love for reading. She also cites author Mark Twain’s quotation as a source of her inspiration: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

A traditional classroom atmosphere does a 180-degree turn with the presence of a therapy dog. A whole new world could be opened up to a student as a result.

The positive impact of a therapy dog’s presence, Miller says, is huge. “A traditional classroom atmosphere does a 180-degree turn with the presence of a therapy dog,” she says. “A whole new world could be opened up to a student as a result.”

Miller says she’s grateful to be teaching in a school where “Our administration is so open to best practices for our students. It always comes back to the best interest of students. That’s where our hearts are,” she explains. “Heritage is such a special place to do ministry. This is just another proof.”

Baxter has become so popular that he’s receiving requests from other teachers, to spend time in their classrooms, too. But for now, Klingerman says they’re assessing and intentionally taking the pilot program one step at a time.

In the meantime, Baxter is doing what he seems to do best; offering students the gift of his easy-going, lovable presence. He’s easy to spot in his Heritage-inspired royal blue doggie vest. It bears the golden, embroidered insignia of a paw print within the outline of a heart, the universal symbol of a therapy dog’s unconditional love. If you ask the fortunate fifth graders he’s helping this year, Baxter the Reading Dog delivers that and a whole lot more.