Karina Hernandez sat on a classroom floor at Ethel I. Baker Elementary in Sacramento on Thursday and read aloud from one of the "Henry & Mudge" children's books.
Karina's audience: four-legged Grace, a large, friendly Labradoodle reprising her role as a "Reading Ambassador Dog," or RAD, and a mainstay of the class.
"I have been liking dogs since I was little," said Karina, 10. "I like to read to dogs. It's like I am talking to my little brother."
Chalk up one more devotee of a 3-year-old program launched by Not Just Animals, a nonprofit that aims to improve kids' reading skills and their relationship with animals.
The group cites research showing that children become more accomplished readers if they practice in front of animals, which don't judge their performance.
Every week for 10 weeks this school year, some 50 elementary school students have attended RAD classes, selected a book from a reading table and sat down to read in the casual, canine setting.
Karina's "Henry & Mudge" book by Cynthia Rylant is about a boy, Henry, who had no siblings and no playmates on his street.
Without missing a word, Karina read, " 'I want to have a dog,' he told his parents."
When the parents agreed, Henry found the floppy-eared Mudge.
The backdrop to Karina's voice was another dozen children's voices, each reading to dogs such as Rudy, the schipperke-poodle mix, and Gosha, the mini schnauzer mix. The dogs' owners are volunteers who, with their pets, participate as pet reading teams.
It is roughly modeled on a study conducted a few years ago at UC Davis, which examined whether the presence of dogs could aid reading skills, said Not Just Animals founder Eileen Gillis.
For the program's first two years, classes operated at the Success Academy, a Sacramento City Unified School District alternative education program. This is its first year at Ethel I. Baker Elementary.
Gillis said an assessment showed that children in the neighborhood needed better experiences with animals.
"And we found dogfighting and loose, roaming dogs, so we targeted children" for the reading-therapy program. The spinoff benefit is educating children about dogs to ensure their own safety.
Teresa Cummings, assistant principal at Ethel I. Baker, said she's already seeing improvements in students' reading fluency and comprehension, as well as their social and emotional development.
Earlier this week, she said, a teacher credited the RAD class with helping two students pass their reading fluency test for the first time this year.
For some kids, it wasn't about the tests. It was about the reading.
First-grader Memory Romero, 6, sailed through her reading of "Bathtime for Biscuit."
"It's good," she said when asked about the class. "It's not that noisy."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and T.S. & K.D. Glide Foundation of Davis each contributed $5,000 to make possible the RAD program conceived by Not Just Animals.
The group runs the program in collaboration with Lend A Heart, which certifies the dogs for animal-assisted therapy.