Jill Whitcomb
Left to right: Lane Heid, children/young adult librarian -- Dickinson Public Library; Flora Cho, ELL Specialist/Testing Center coordinator -- Dickinson State University; Nikki St. John, Sargent's owner as well as the owner of a Dickinson dance studio. (Submitted photo)

(Submitted photo)

(Submitted photo)



Those brown, soulful eyes. That wet nose. And that friendly, wagging tail.

We've all heard that a dog is man's best friend. But can a dog be a teacher, a therapist and a good listener, as well? Thanks to the educational ideas from a group of ladies in Dickinson, the answer to that question is... Yes!

Hyunjung Cho, who prefers going by the name Flora Dalila, is a non-native English speaker. She is a researcher who studied the idea of using creativity to enhance education. She works with English Language Learners as a Specialist, and a Testing Center coordinator at Dickinson State University. Flora noticed a trend of more English Language Learners in the Dickinson school system, but not enough help and support for those learners. After discovering the READ program in Fargo, where English Language Learners read to calm and friendly therapy dogs, she was inspired to bring a similar program to Dickinson. And, RUFF was born. RUFF, which stands for Reading to Unjudged Furry Friends, was founded by Flora, Rebecca Advik, and Lane Talkington.

According to the research of the RUFF pilot program, English Language learners who read to a calm and friendly dog tend to be better readers. Not only do the readers gain confidence, but they have less anxiety from reading out loud. Flora believes that anxiety for English Language learners "comes from a fear of being judged by your peers, teachers and parents. As many researchers have already found out, lowering anxiety plays a critical role when it comes to learning languages. When your level of anxiety is low, you learn languages better." The RUFF program tracks the progress of the students with observations, interviews with parents, and assessments given before and after the participation in the program. Of course, we can't forget the listening skills of Sargent, the black German shepherd that has taken on the role of top dog at RUFF. Sargent has been specially trained for his duties as a reading therapy dog, certified by the American Kennel Club and passed his Canine Good Citizen test with flying colors.

Flora has plenty of success stories about children enrolled in the program. "A second grade boy, one of the participants, was reading 'The Cat in the Hat' with Sargent, and he was struggling. The dog handler was ready to give the instruction how to say, out loud, a certain word. The boy showed discouraging body language (he had lowered his head). All of a sudden, Sargent moved closer to the boy, put his giant paw on the boy's lap, and gave him eye contact with kisses. The boy smiled as soon as he felt the warm and encouraging dog's paw, and smiled. He could finish reading 'The Cat in the Hat' that day. The thing the boy got from the RUFF program was not certain English vocabulary words that he struggled with. But the thing he got was an 'I can do it!' mindset, a feeling of love, care, and a feeling of community as a recent immigrant."

In April of 2016, the Global Summit on Childhood will be held in Costa Rica. Flora will be presenting her research at the Summit, under the title Using Reading Unjudged to Furry Friends: A new strategy for young English Language Learners. Flora explained her ideas: "My research falls under the social innovation theme, in that the RUFF program is a new strategy that meets the needs of English Language Learners while creating collaboration between those creating the program and the immigrant families participating in the program. The program forms unique ties between the immigrant families involved, and the program has the potential to bring the community together."

Currently, RUFF has four children participating in the program and research, all hailing from Mexico and of grade school ages (Kindergarten through 5th grade).

Looking toward the future for the RUFF pilot program, Flora and her cofounders have a vision: they'd like to expand the program eventually add more English Language Learners. And, of course, they'd love to add more furry friends, wet noses and friendly wagging tails.

Jill Whitcomb is a North Dakota-based writer who is currently residing in Grand Forks. Jill has written for newspaper, magazine, and Prairie Public radio. Jill also writes a blog, SeekYourBliss.blogspot.com, which has garnered readers from 75 countries. Jill enjoys reading, vegetarian cooking, and a strong cup of British tea.