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Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 30, 2014

‘Tail-wagging tutor’ helps Des Moines students learn

By JANET KLOCKENGA | Apr 08, 2013

DES MOINES (AP) — Jazi Phillip's tutor can't read, although she's proven to be caring, attentive and helpful.

Third-grader Jazi reads once a week to Kyra, a 3-year-old American pit bull terrier, a "tail-wagging tutor" and the star of a new program at Stowe Elementary School, the school Jazi attends on Des Moines' east side.

Kyra is owned by Tony and Ashley Meyer, who live near the school. Jazi has been reading to the dog since January as part of a new "tail-wagging tutor" program at Stowe. Since Kyra and Jazi met, Jazi's reading comprehension scores have risen, said Dawn Vetter, Stowe principal.

"We found this is one of the things that has made reading more fun for Jazi," Vetter told The Des Moines Register.

The principal now wants to expand Kyra's role. She has a waiting list of children who want to read with the 50-pound black and white dog. The Meyers said they plan to soon start bringing Kyra to the school four days a week.

The Meyers are aware of the stigma surrounding pit bulls. Some believe they are violent and vicious. Numerous cities around the country have banned the animals. In Iowa, 42 cities do not allow pit bulls in their city limits, according to the Animal Rescue League of Iowa's website.

The couple said training is key for any dog to ensure it doesn't bite people or other animals.

Kyra has been trained and has earned certification through the Therapy Dog International program and the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program, said Ashley Meyer, who also is a member of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa's Pit Crew Club, which helps educate the public about pit bulls.

As part of the Pit Crew's Ambass-A-Bulls program, the Meyers take Kyra on visits to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and libraries, where they give programs on bullying and stereotypes, kindness and compassion, and how to safely greet a dog.

The Meyers were evicted last year from their apartment in Orient after a new manager changed his policy allowing the owners of pit bulls to live there. The couple moved to Des Moines in June 2012. Ashley Meyer said they made numerous calls to find a house or apartment here where they could live with Kyra.

Since their move, the couple said they have spent time and money to train and insure Kyra, and to comply with Des Moines' vicious dog ordinance. Kyra is now enrolled in an agility class and will soon start a canine nosework class, which involves beginning search-and-rescue training, Tony Meyer said. Kyra also is a blood donor for dogs in need.

When Kyra is at Stowe or any other school, she is always leashed by her owners. In addition, parents must sign permission slips to allow Kyra near their children.

Ashley Meyer describes Kyra as anything but vicious. Kyra has never been aggressive around children or adults, Ashley Meyer said. Proponents of pit bulls say they are not predisposed to behavior problems.

"She's very submissive and she loves kids," Ashley said. "She lights up whenever kids are around."

Stephanie Filer, manager of special gifts and partnerships with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa and a pit bull owner, said the 27 people and 12 dog members of the Ambass-A-Bulls have visited seven Des Moines elementary schools and schools in Newton, Orient-Macksburg and Dallas Center-Grimes in the past year since the Pit Crew was formed.

"We began the group in Des Moines because Des Moines has chosen to discriminate against dogs that look a certain way," she said. "Our position is that every dog is an individual and should be treated as such."

Vetter, the Stowe principal, began a similar therapy dog program at Orchard Place when she was the facility's principal. Orchard Place is a residential facility for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.

"She's brought a huge excitement about reading," Vetter said about Kyra. "Kids are just excited about her. She's been an eager listener, and it's been fun to watch Jazi read with Kyra."

Tony Meyer said Therapy Dog International's research shows that reading to a dog is beneficial because "the dog is just there to listen," and that reluctant readers often feel more at ease if they know they won't be corrected when they make mistakes. Jazi said she likes to read mysteries to Kyra.

"It's kind of fun because I'm the first one that they picked," Jazi said. "(Kyra) likes to lick the book. For the first couple days I didn't want to do it, but now I do."

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