HILLSBOROUGH - Ella can't sit still for reading because she's too active. She goes to a class for similarly active students where everybody loves her.
Ella's a poodle, one of six trained therapy dogs who come to New Hope Elementary School. Therapy dog teams work in pairs: Ella's handler, Judy Sams, is the important other half.
Although Sams went through all the training with Ella, when the kids enter the room Sams retreats and lets Ella work her magic.
"Having a dog is a very powerful tool for my students," said Nancy Harris, the special education teacher in the class Ella visits. "They can create a relationship with a dog that they may find more difficult with peers or an adult."
The goals are different for the various children in Harris' class, some of whom don't read, have learning disorders, autism/Aspberger's syndrome or mental illness. Dogs can help with social interaction, following directions, even staying calm.
"Some need a big positive reward to do their academic work, and Ella is a very big reward. That's a big, big deal," Harris said. "Others just need a positive moment in their day."
Dogs can reach places that other methods might not, she explains. Ella makes her students feel good about themselves and enhances their self-esteem.
From Ella, third-grader Alex learns coordination, speaking and following directions. Ella won't come until he says, "Ella, come." He throws treats that she catches.
From Ella, kindergartner Jarrod learns coordination by brushing her coat. He is careful to brush around her ears because poodles' ears need care.
Together, they walk Ella with two leashes requiring coordination and cooperation.
Guidance counselor Kim Keleher describes how the program began: In 2009, Pet Pals program administrator Wendy Stewart had a young program at two schools and asked who else in the district wanted a therapy dog program. Keleher spoke up, but teachers said not so fast. After a faculty meeting and demonstration with Stewart, several teachers were interested.
"It's new. It's foreign to see a dog at school," says Stewart. "This is going on all over the country. They even have a therapy dog at Yale now."
As of March, students at the Yale Law Library can sign up for 30 minutes with Monty, a border terrier mix and certified library therapy dog, according to ABCnews.go.com
At New Hope Principal Jen Benkovitz, or Dr. B, liked the idea so much she is getting her dog, Hobbes, trained and registered. "He will come to school with her and visit classrooms," Stewart said. "I think it projects a caring, compassionate image for a school. Families who are checking us out say, 'Oh, you have dogs in school?'"
Stewart said established programs such as See Spot Read and READ inspired her, but she wanted to create something tailored for Orange County.
In 2007, her black lab mix also named Ella, became a certified therapy pet and began working with students at Partnership Academy and Hillsborough Elementary School, where teacher Julia Workman coined the name "Pet Pals." In 2009, her dog Julius, a black and white terrier mix, became certified and joined Ella in her tasks at the two schools.
At New Hope Elementary, Keleher interviews handler-dog teams and keeps a notebook of all human-dog interactions. She even involves the fifth grade student council students in helping supervise the Pet Pal team visits. Said Cristian, "Good dogs don't laugh at you when you mess up." Said Kaitlyn, "It's fun! And we are lucky to have this privilege."
Last year, Efland Cheeks Elementary and A.L. Stanback Middle schools began Pet Pals programs. Central Elementary is pending, another is getting started and two are showing interest.
"We could have at least 10 schools this time next year," Stewart said. "We need more volunteers!"
And she is already planning how to bring cats and gerbils into Pet Pals. Delta Society, the group that certifies her therapy dogs, will register rabbits, goats, horses, miniature pigs, and birds, among other animals.
"I really just want to create more awareness about the possibility of pets in schools," she said. "Anybody can create a program like this and call it what they want."