When he stumbled over a word, Dakota didn't flinch - and, for a change, neither did Demarion.
"It feels different reading to the dogs than reading in class," said Demarion, 8. "I feel comfortable."
To help boost literacy and confidence, Wheeless Road Elementary School has launched a program in which pupils read aloud to therapy dogs, taking the pressure and judgment of classmates out of the process. Twice a month, four volunteers from Therapy Dogs Inc. take their dogs to a classroom for one-hour reading sessions.
Though research into the benefits of reading-assisted dogs is limited and mostly anecdotal, some recent scientific studies have shown that the animals can affect literacy.
In a 2010 study by the University of California Davis Veterinary Medicine Extension, third-grade pupils who read aloud to dogs once a week for 10 weeks improved reading fluency by 12 percent. The control group, which did not use the animals, showed no improvement.
The researchers also studied 11 home-schooled youths, who showed a 30 percent improvement in reading fluency.
"It's the environment, really, that the kids are in," said Dr. Martin Smith, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis. "It's creating an environment where kids feel relaxed and are more comfortable."
The reading program started at Wheeless Road in October, when kindergarten teacher Deborah Welcher met the therapy group.
Ten to 15 pupils from kindergarten to third grade participate in each session and take turns reading short books to the four dogs that regularly attend.
Welcher said she has already seen an influence on the pupils, including more confidence in the classroom after they leave the animals and improvements on their reading tests.
Teachers are keeping track of the pupils' reading scores to see whether the program has an impact at the end of the year, Welcher said.
"Kids that have a fear of reading to adults just don't have any kind of fear when it comes to reading to a pet," Welcher said. "When they come in, the ones who are shy suddenly aren't. Say, for example, they miss a word. The dog doesn't mind."
George Pace, who spent Thursday at school with his son, said he immediately saw a change in his kindergartner's demeanor as he read to Big Boy, a 175-pound Great Dane.
While normally shy and reluctant, he was different when he sat next to Big Boy.
"The dog absolutely grabs his attention," Pace said. "It's easier for him to read to the dog than it is to read to us."
Principal Valerie McGahee said the program is part of a larger effort to bring the community to the school this year. Administrators are working to implement GED and résumé-writing classes for adults and continuing-education classes and community meals.
"Our goal is to make this a community school," said McGahee, who began leading Wheeless Road last year. More than 90 percent of the school's pupils receive free or reduced-price lunch.