Small brown paw prints on the sidewalk guide the way to Wagner-Holt Elementary's reading room.
Inside the welcoming room plastered with dog posters and a huge rug, Ariana Lopez has chosen to read Dr. Suess' "Go Dog Go." As she accurately goes from word to rhyming word, the second-grader holds the book in one hand and lets 10-year-old Woody lick the other one.
The dog sits at her feet, gazing up and hanging on her every word.
Suddenly, like most dogs looking for a little extra attention, he flops to one side waiting for a tummy rub - because he knows he'll get one, said volunteer Jean Pack.
Pack and Woody are part of a voluntary reading program using therapy dogs, which will soon close out its first full school year.
Intervention reading teacher Jane Belluomini brought Talewaggers to Wagner Holt a year-and-a-half ago, after seeing the similar PAWS program at Lodi Middle School.
"The benefit of the program is increasing the confidence of reading aloud," said counselor Michelle Mazza, who personally works with students and a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Belini twice a week. "I've seen over time how it's increased their skills."
One student is reading far above her grade level while another, who professes to hate picking up a book, loves to do so when dogs are involved. He's currently engrossed in a book on dog facts because he can read a few and then compare what he's learned to the animal in the room, Mazza said.
Sierrah Coppedge, 8, said she reads more than ever now after being part of Talewaggers. "I read everyday, probably more than I go outside," she said.
While her favorite book is Suess' "Green Eggs and Ham," it's not surprising that her favorite part of coming to the reading club is Woody.
"He's a good dog. He loves to yawn. I like that he doesn't bark or jump on people," she said.
When her time is up, Sierrah gives Woody a hug and he wags his tail in obvious appreciation.
Fifth-grade teacher Debbi Crawford, who owns one of the therapy dogs in the program, has two students who are benefiting from it.
"I wanted to find a place where they could gain confidence in reading, but one just needed someone who's nonjudgmental, and dogs sure aren't," she said. "There's a need for acceptance, and dogs can give that."
Crawford, who believes pleasure reading has disappeared from the classroom, said the reading club works because the volunteers who bring in their own dogs are good at making the students feel welcome. Plus, there's no watchful audience of peers waiting for someone to make a mistake while reading aloud.
"It's a privilege. You get to do something that no one else does," she added of the students' half-hour each week. "It's developing self-esteem in kids, (and) allowing them to get that is great. Look at this room. It's beautiful in here."
The inviting room was once a dark unused storage room until Belluomini moved the school's reading club in and did the decorating herself. For that, coupled with her dedication to the students and the dogs, the adult coordinators sing her accolades.
Talewaggers: By the numbers1 reading resource specialist
5 community volunteers
7 dogs of all sizes
60 student participants
Source: Wagner-Holt Elementary School
"Jane just goes above and beyond," Mazza said. "To make something like this happen it seemed to easy to do, but to actually make it come together?"
Belluomini has also amassed quite a collection of dog books with titles like "W is for Woof" and "Bad Dog Marley." They are propped up on shelves along two sides of the room just waiting for eager hands.
A comfy couch graces a third wall, where readers are invited to cuddle with the dogs as they sound out the words in their chosen books. Belluomini compares the reading experience to the Grandparents Days of her childhood.
Today, about 60 students participate each week, getting 15 minutes in front of a dog and 15 minutes of reading alone time. Afterward, they receive a dog print stamp in the binder log and one on their hands.
Soon another child will be leading a leashed dog into the reading room.
The participants are chosen by their teachers for a variety of reasons.
While most of those reasons are related to improving reading skills, sometimes a student just needs a boost of self-esteem or a safe place to go for unconditional love when their home life isn't the best.
And for students who have fallen below grade level in reading, gone are the days of the school reading specialist summoning you to her office,
Belluomini pointed out, "Before, when I walked in, they wondered who was going to get called in."
But this is definitely different.
Pack, a volunteer and Woody's owner, joined the group a few years ago after reading an article about Lodi Middle School's program and thinking her even-mannered, friendly dog would be perfect. Now she volunteers her Wednesday mornings at Wagner-Holt and her Thursday afternoons at Lodi Middle.
Like others, Woody and Pack have gone through Lodi's Animal Friends Connetion-sponsored training. The next one is scheduled for Sept. 30.
During the year, some students even become friends with their furry companions and bring them treats. Research shows that the closer the bond, the more the students read, and the more they read the better readers they become.
But Belluomini said not all of the participants are below grade-level in reading. Some are actually very good readers who need to be challenged with harder books.
And the daily presence of a dog on campus is welcoming for all of the students, second-grade teacher Michelle Simon said, recalling many a time one of the big dogs has been showered with attention by children wanting to throw him a ball.
"It also allows students to learn more about having a pet," she added.
For her students, telling time became almost as important as their enrollment in Talewaggers because if they didn't know what the clock read, they wouldn't know when to head to the reading room.
"It's just a warm experience for them," Simon said before patting Woody on the head.
At the end of the school year, each participant will receive a free book courtesy of the Parent Teacher Association and a certificate of completion with a "pawtograph" from their year-long, four-legged reading buddy.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.