Sophia VanLeuven and Daphne Ryner read aloud to their class at Matlby Elementary School.
Sophia VanLeuven and Daphne Ryner read aloud to their class at Matlby Elementary School.
<
2
3
4
>

George Sallee didn’t intend for an entire community to know and love his new golden retriever when Simon came home.

Almost four years later, hundreds of Maltby Elementary School students and families are familiar with the Snohomish man and his three canine partners, who read in nearly every classroom once a week.

“The draw, the hook, is the dogs, but the benefit is the reading,” said fourth-grade teacher Kimberley Smith.

She and other educators were recently interviewed for an episode of the Monroe School District News, hosted by anchor and student Adrian Beerbower. Randy Brown, director of program development for the school district, headed production. The intent was to document Sallee and the impactful program he has grown.

The 82-year-old has worked with dogs for four decades. For many years he trained the loyal animals for events like the American Kennel Club’s annual Best in Show competition. Shortly after Simon — named for one of his favorite duos, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel — moved in with Sallee and his wife, it became apparent he would make a good therapy dog.

“Therapy dogs are just big ol’ lovers,” he said.

The married couple continued to make weekend trips to the Woodinville Barnes and Noble as Sallee and Simon worked toward their certification. It was there that the trainer in training would watch children react as they were told stories in the kids corner of the store.

Soon he was in the readers seat with Simon by his side. The pair had earned their credentials through Pet Partners, which started as the Delta Society 40 years ago. Sallee flunked the test twice, while his pet passed, he adds. Eventually they caught the eye of a local elementary school librarian and were invited to the campus.

In the MSD News video, Sallee recalls he was met with some resistance when he first arrived at Maltby — there were a few concerns his four-footed partner may become a distraction. But having the dogs around actually kept students more interested while reading in class.

Third-grader Luca Villasnor met Sallee last year. When it was his first turn to read aloud, he was so nervous he spoke like a robot. Now the words flow with ease.

In each classroom, Sallee asks for kids to help him read. Sometimes they show their peers photos while he tells the story, while others take turns going through the book on their own, with some encouragement and assistance from Sallee when they get stuck.

Villasnor and the other kids in his class crowded in a tight circle around Sallee and students Daphne Ryner and Sophia VanLeuven last Thursday afternoon. Simon napped in the corner for the first several minutes. Halfway through the 30-minute session, the dog sat up and kids quickly huddled around for a chance to pet the patient animal.

Sallee comes for a few reasons.

“One is personal, that is the payback; the second is I would like children to read and enjoy reading, it took me awhile to get there but I do,” he said in the video.

Sallee is a retired engineer. He worked for Boeing for many years. He said reading is what allowed him to have a long and successful career.

University of Washington student teacher Sophi White has worked in six schools in three different school districts. She has never seen a program like Sallee’s. Students who are normally anxious and hesitant to participate when asked to read aloud are more confident and engaged when their turn comes, she said.

“It takes a lot of nerve,” Ryner said. “You have to have courage.”

She and VanLeuven passed a microphone back and forth Thursday. The two girls said the way they look at reading has changed since Sallee came into their classroom. VanLeuven said presenting in front of other students has helped her to understand stories more easily in her head.

Their peer Andrew Flournoy said it has made his experience with books more enjoyable. He said it is exciting to have a dog around while he reads, and reminds him of his own at home.

“The first time I saw him it was pretty fun,” he said.

Special education teacher Christi Crescenzo said in the video her kids have learned new skills like taking turns, sharing and sitting patiently for periods of time. It is easy to do with Sallee’s animated spirit, which she said is captivating. 

Sallee now attends 16 classrooms on a weekly basis. He said more and more teachers have asked him to make time for their students. Over the years he has trained and certified two more therapy dogs who travel to Maltby with him.

He feels he only has a few years left in him, so Sallee has been taking steps to pass on the structure of the program to a successor. He believes the school and community can and should continue to benefit from having a dog around when the kids read. He’s written down Simon’s story and how someone following in their tracks could recreate the same system.

It is important to note, for example, that a reader will need two books for kindergarten classrooms. They will have to have more for the older grades. Additionally, materials will have to be age-appropriate, but also challenge kids in the right ways.

“Any dog that is laid back, non-barking, very gentle and likes kids will make a good therapy dog,” Sallee said.

White said she hopes the program will become even more prolific. It would be exciting to see how it could take off, she said.

Sallee and his dogs have also made a difference for kids in the short term.

Principal Bonnie McKerney said sometimes when a student is having a bad day, she will ask them to escort the pet partners to a classroom. Staff makes sure the struggling student can come see Simon, she said.

“The animals and George light up our day,” she said, “we are truly blessed to have him here.”