EVANSDALE — Harley lays on the floor, head and paws flat against the ground and ears perked up slightly, as Hunter Hess reads.
The Siberian husky and certified therapy dog remains still as Hess, 7, reads “A Day with Police Officers.” Even when the Poyner Elementary School second-grader reads that the officers patrol with a police dog named Buster it doesn’t faze Harley.
Those perfect listening skills are a big reason the dog makes several visits per week to Poyner, where small groups of students read to him behind a door labeled “Harley’s Reading Room.” Earlier this week, Hess and three classmates sat on bean bag chairs and pillows in front of the dog. They each had the chance to read to him for five minutes.
“I usually like to read in my head,” said Kaileigh Johnson. But all four of the kids agreed reading aloud to Harley was fun. “I like reading to dogs,” said Eli Hicok.
“It’s a powerful thing that he can make everybody happy,” said Bobby Quang, Harley’s owner. “He doesn’t judge anyone, either. He just plops here and waits for the kids.”
Quang and his wife, Megan, had Harley trained as an airport and crisis therapy dog by Go Team Therapy Dogs when they were attending college in Arizona. After returning to Iowa, where Quang is attending the University of Northern Iowa, they connected with literacy coach Jami Nott and started bringing the dog to Poyner in September.
“I wanted to bring in something innovative,” said Nott, when she started working at the school this fall. Research shows that students who read aloud to dogs demonstrate improvement in their attitudes toward reading, which then has an impact on assessment scores.
“We rotate around the school so everybody’s going to have a chance to read to him,” she noted. While reading scores “have been pretty good” at the school, Nott has noticed improvements in attendance, interest in reading and anxiety levels among students. “We’ve seen a huge increase in literacy from the students who have read to him already.”
She also pointed to Harley as a non-judgmental presence for the students. “That’s huge for kids that bring a lot of stress from home,” said Nott.
In addition, she said, “Harley’s able to read some students” and recognize they’re going through an emotional struggle. “He’ll put his head on their lap.”
Nott hopes to work with Harley and the Quangs all year, so every student in kindergarten through fifth grade should have more than one chance to read with the dog. She said even the limited reading opportunities have an effect, according to the research.
“It really does build their confidence,” she said. “It transfers into the classroom.”
Quang got Harley in April 2017 at an Arizona animal shelter, originally for his wife. Having the dog meant she wouldn’t have to be alone while he was away in Iowa during that summer.
A trainer told them Harley, who will turn 5 on Christmas eve, has a calm and loving manner with children that made him a great therapy dog candidate.
“It’s very fun,” said Quang, noting they also volunteer with Harley in various other situations where a therapy dog can be helpful. “We kind of do it for ourselves, as well. It’s kind of the feeling of helping.”