Third-grader Abigal Horst didn't always like to read, especially when she had to read aloud.

But when she started reading to Widget every week at the Milanof-Schock Library in Mount Joy, that all started to change.

Widget is a good listener who doesn't judge when Abigal struggles with the difficult words.

Or maybe it's the fact that Widget is a black-and-white border collie and a certified therapy dog that sets Abigal at ease.

"I asked her what her favorite part of the day was at school, and she says it's reading, and that she can come and see Widget tonight," said Terrie Horst, Abigal's mom. "She loves to read now."

Milanof-Schock Library's Reading with Dogs program allows kids to schedule one-on-one reading time with a therapy dog, and parents are finding that reading with dogs, and other programs like it, can really make a difference.

Jan Betty, children and youth coordinator at the library, said they can have up to 16 children coming in on a weekly basis to participate in their growing program.

"We get a lot of positive feedback from reading specialists and the parents," Betty said. "The concept behind it is that it takes the pressure off of the child. They're not going to bark if you get a word wrong."

Betty said that often struggling readers really struggle with confidence, and although she isn't quite sure why, reading with dogs really seems to help.

"There are a growing number of studies … and a lot of data suggesting it improves reading fluency," Millersville University psychology professor Debra Vredenburg-Rudy said. "But a lot of research needs to be done yet."

She works with therapy dogs herself and has taught courses on the bond between humans and animals.

Simply having a dog present can increase confidence and lower blood pressure and heart-rate in children, Vredenburg-Rudy said. This phenomenon increases levels of oxytocin — a hormone associated with positive feelings and our ability to bond with others — in both the human and the dog.

In two studies by University of California, Davis, researchers found that third-graders who read with dogs in a weekly program showed a 12-percent improvement in reading fluency. Third-graders who were home-schooled showed improvement of  30 percent.

At Millersville, Vredenburg-Rudy said they use therapy dogs during exams as a way to help students relieve stress.

Educators in libraries and classrooms across Lancaster County, and the country, are finding similar benefits to therapy animals, and they're using therapy dogs in a variety of ways-from reading programs to working with special-needs children.

At Central Manor Elementary in Penn Manor School District, autistic support teacher Christine Glover  said weekly visits from two Australian labradoodles named Calvin and Hobbes are making a big difference in her Intermediate Unit 13 classroom.

"The benefits that they provide for my students go far beyond academics. They are literally helping to teach them life skills."

Glover says Calvin and Hobbes help modify poor behavior and motivate students to finish their work so they can spend time with the dogs.

Calvin and Hobbes' owners Greg and Peggy Maberry visit Central Manor every week to work with the autistic children and to run reading programs with other children. They're volunteers from Keystone Pets Enhanced Therapy Service, an organization with more than 350 volunteers that certifies therapy animals for use in classrooms, libraries, retirement homes and hospitals.

 "For me it's a kind of ministry.  We just like to share our dogs with other people," Greg Maberry said.

At Riverview Elementary in Donegal School District, KPETS volunteer Joanne Klein brings her Labrador retriever Kappy to meet with fourth-graders every week. Students take turns reading to Kappy in the hall throughout the year, and Klein said it can make a big difference in some students' lives.

"Kids that will not read out loud, they don't even realize they're reading out loud when they're with Kappy," fourth-grade teacher Linda Good said. "The kids just absolutely love that dog."

Good said it's neat to see how Kappy can bring healing to troubled students and encourages good behavior.

"Kids just have a special connection to animals," Good said.

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