MARRIOTT-SLATERVILLE -- Dalton Richmond laughed and rolled on the floor as Bert, a golden retriever therapy dog, cuddled up close to listen to Dalton read his book.
The third-grader got to spend 10 minutes reading to Bert as part of Pioneer Elementary School's partnership with Therapy Animals of Utah and United Way.
Two different therapy dogs visit the school for one hour twice a week. The school's volunteer coordinator, Jenna Mueller, set up the partnership when she was approached by United Way to help get a therapy/reading program started in her school. Mueller was excited because she believed reading to the dogs would help students improve their literacy skills.
Principal Lori Rasmussen jumped right on board, too.
"The kids love, love, love it," she said as she came into the third-grade classroom where Bert was visiting for the afternoon.
Mueller said students are divided into groups of five or six to have the chance for one-on-one reading time with the dogs. Each week the students for the next week are told it will be their turn, so they have time to pick a book and prepare for their reading time.
"They have the whole week to practice, pick their book and be at the top of their game to read to (the dog)," Mueller said.
The visits generate excitement among the kids, but Mueller also noticed an extra benefit.
"They are excited, but when Bert gets here, they are calm and very respectful," Mueller said. "They are so careful with him as they pet him. It teaches them a lot about respect."
Third-grader Julian Estrada carefully read his book, "Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel," to Bert. He read so quietly, it was almost a whisper as he draped his arm around Bert and petted him behind the ears.
"It's fun. I like reading, and he just listens. I also like that I can cuddle with him," Julian said as a sly smile came across his face. His family owned two dogs but sold them, so visiting with Bert means a lot to him.
The dogs have been visiting the school for the past month, and each student will have a chance for one-on-one time with one of the dogs. Vickie King is Bert's owner. She volunteers her time and Bert at the school and at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden.
King snapped photos of the students with Bert as she talked about how calm and relaxing it has been for both owner and dog to come into the classroom. She said coming to the school is a little less stressful for Bert than going to the hospital, because he doesn't have to take on the same stresses from students as he does patients.
"(The dogs) feel that burden and take it on. Being here, they feel the happiness," King said.
Marian Evans brings her dog, Toby, on Mondays. She has worked with schools for several years. She got together with other trainers from Therapy Animals of Utah and suggested they expand the program, so Clark started working with Evans.
When King started working with the class, she learned that one of the students, Ryan Malan, had been severely burned and was in University of Utah Hospital's burn unit in Salt Lake City. The students in the class felt bad that he wasn't participating with Bert and suggested King take Bert to visit Ryan.
So King did just that and Ryan now Skypes with his class during some of the visits.
King said: "It's been amazing to watch all of them bond and how close they are."