The first graders in Sharon Glazier’s class at Kanab Elementary School stare wide-eyed as they meet Soldier, a friendly yellow lab, whose three-legged persona is testimony to tougher times when he was abandoned and left tied up at a shooting range.

Soldier was born with a disability—his right leg (his only leg in front) is crooked, and all the weight on one leg puts additional pressure on his shoulder. Although getting around is a bit of a challenge, Soldier gimps along quite happily.

Today’s canine guest is Soldier, but other days it could be Fraizer, a reddish-tan, St. Bernard/shepherd/lab mix who walks in parades, hangs out at Laid Back Larry’s and has quite the reputation as the local “canine about town.” Or it could also be Sego, a yellow lab who is a registered Delta Society therapy dog who is battling cancer and teaching kids a lot about individual perseverance.

All three canine companions love kids. And once in the classroom, the big smiles on students’ faces make it apparent that the feeling is mutual.

This is the Best Friends’ ‘I Read to Animals’ program, a hands-on outreach to young children organized by the Society’s Humane Education Department. The program provides a humane education lesson along with the opportunity for children to read to animals to develop self-confidence, practice their reading skills and learn about kindness and compassion towards animals.

There are no corrections here. The kids read and the dogs listen. Reading sessions are sometimes so calming, that the dogs become relaxed and fall asleep. It truly is a unique bond between the child and the dog. After reading, each child adopts a stuffed animal to take home as their reading partner.

Late last summer, Kim Dalton Best Friends’ program specialist in the Humane Education Department, met with Kanab Elementary Principal Pam Aziz about the program. After four months of the current school year, it’s been a roaring success. In addition to Kanab Elementary, the program also is offered to audiences at the Kanab Library and Fredonia Library.

“We love the program,” says Aziz. “Kim Dalton has been just excellent. She’s well organized. She’s a great instructor. Her program presentations are engaging to our students and the excitement has spread from one teacher to the next. Several teachers have asked her to come to their classrooms and then ask her to come back again.”

As a former elementary school teacher of 16 years, Dalton can attest to many moments in teaching children that touch the heart. The ‘I Read to Animals’ program does just that.

“It really develops self-confidence for young readers, but animals also benefit,” she says. “There’s great interaction with the animals, and the kids achieve a nice comfort level reading to the animals because it’s one-on-one – without adult interaction – in a safe environment.”

The session begins with a lesson about animal kindness, dog safety or adopting shelters – just about any topic that helps the children understand more about animals and the care they require. Then each child takes a turn reading to the animal.

“Reading to animals might seem strange to adults, but the kids catch on right away and think it’s cool,” Dalton said.

One particular six-year-old boy came to an ‘I Read to Animals’ session at the library, and from the look on his face and his body language, it was clear he was terrified.

But after meeting Soldier, Fraizer and Sego and listening attentively, he took part in the dog safety demonstration with a realistic stuffed-toy dog. When his turn came to read, he hesitated, but after some encouraging words from his sister and the Best Friends staff, he chose Soldier as his reading dog.

Several months later, when Dalton came to his Kanab Elementary classroom for a presentation, this same student not only enthusiastically shared what he learned about dog safety, but also his positive experiences with Soldier.

Dalton’s presentations have prompted students from Glazier’s class, as well as Carol Heaton’s second graders and Lindsey Glover’s third graders, to draw pictures about their experience and write letters such as the following:

“Dear Best Friends: It was really fun having you over with us. Thank you for the stuffed animals. We loved them. Thank you for teaching us about dogs and other stuff and letting us read to the dogs, Fraizer and Sego.” – Alyssa

“Dear Best Friends: Thank you for giving us those stuffed animals. Hope you are having fun and taking care of the animals there. I had fun reading with my animals. We love the dog you gave us. We have so much fun reading with the dog.” – Braeden

Here are some dog safety tips provided to the children:

•Always ask permission to pet a dog. “Is your dog friendly?” “May I pet your dog?”

•Stay away from a dog who is: eating, drinking, injured, taking care of puppies, tied up, behind a fence, inside a car or has a toy in their mouth.

•Stay away from a dog who is growling or barking.

•If you meet a stray dog, be calm. Stand still, look away and have a quiet voice.

•Remember all dogs can bite regardless of their size, looks or breed.

•Dogs are individuals and have different behaviors – just like kids.

For additional information on Best Friends Animal Society’s Humane Education programs visit: http://www.bestfriends.ort/nomorehomelesspets/humaneeducation/

For more information on the ‘I Read to Animals’ program, contact Kim Dalton (kimd@bestfriends.org or call 435-644-2001, ext. 4632.