Slackers in school have plenty of excuses for why they did not do an assignment. One of the all-time favorites is to say the dog ate their homework. But in Knox County, canines are showing up in classrooms to help students with their schoolwork and unleash a healthy academic habit.

Jen, Juno, and Vegas

Jen Wright studies child psychology as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee. When she's not buried in books, Wright's daily routine consists of caring for her two canine girls. There's the large and playful black lab named Juno and the medium-sized "lucky dog" named Vegas. Vegas was deemed lucky by Wright because she was one of only a couple of tiny puppies to survive from a litter that was rescued when the mother dog was killed.

"Juno, she would just play all day long whereas Vegas would just rather have her belly rubbed," said Wright. "Vegas has no idea how to play with humans. If you throw a ball at her it will hit her in the face. Then she'll come over to be petted. Vegas has such a sweet personality and she is so affectionate. She is a very soothing presence."

Wright said it occurred to her that Vegas might have a temperament well-suited for therapy dogs.

"I had heard of dogs visiting nursing homes and hospitals and thought Vegas might be good for that. I looked up the volunteer group HABIT and saw the Ruff Reading program where dogs go into schools. I'm pursuing a career in education and thought it would be a good fit for both us."

Ruff Reading Ritual

HABIT stands for Human Animal Bond In Tennessee. The volunteer program is operated by the University of Tennessee vet school and sends some of the dogs to Pond Gap Elementary in Knoxville.

While Vegas might not grasp the concept of games with humans, she is extremely affectionate and is an expert listener. For the last couple of years, Jen and Vegas have put those loving listening skills to good use every week at Pond Gap's after school Ruff Reading program.

"She loves interacting with the kids. You can see her whole face light up and she gets her little canine smile. Every time we go to the school the kids are so excited to see us."

Vegas is just one of several volunteer dogs that participate in the program. The HABIT dogs transform around 60 students into bookworms by listening to the children read in individual and group sessions.

"I think reading is one of the most basic academic skills that we have. If they [the children] are not naturally motivated to read, then it's important to have something that will make them become more interested," said Wright.

In one-on-one sessions, children pick out a book and read it aloud to Vegas and Jen. Wright will help the children with words if they request help. However, the main mission is to serve as a loving listener.

Reading aloud to a dog gives the children an adoring audience without the fear of making a mistake in front of the entire class. Vegas tells no tales of how well or poorly a child reads. What happens with Vegas stays with Vegas.

"The dogs that the kids read to are non-judgmental," said Mark Benson, coordinator of UT's Assisted Community Schools Program at Pond Gap. "The dogs don't stop the child if they get a word wrong. I think it is for self esteem. It helps their confidence that kids can read."

Third-grader Onika Redish is one of the students who said they enjoy reading to Vegas compared to the fear of reading in front of classmates.

"Because I'm scared to mess up with a word," said Redish. She added that fear was not a concern with Vegas, "Because it can't talk and tell me that I did it wrong."

Benson said teachers at Pond Gap love how the dogs have affected their students by unleashing an appetite for literature.

"Having the dogs here motivates the kids to want to read," said Benson. "They get excited to see Vegas, or Boston, or Teddy, or Sunshine, or any of the other dogs that come in. They want to read. They want to read and they're reading out loud, so we know they are actually making an effort to read and not silently reading for 10 minutes and daydreaming."

Benson said the program benefits children of all reading abilities.

"Every grade level has a HABIT dog and a volunteer come in once a week," said Benson. "They're excited about reading and the more they read the more they improve."

"They [the students] also will tell me things like, 'I practiced this book before I came to you.' So they are getting extra time reading on their own and I think that is a really awesome benefit," said Wright. "I've been doing this now for a couple of years and you can really see the improvement in the kids' reading skills. Some of that is natural improvement simply from being in school two more years, but I think it definitely goes beyond that. You can see the impact because the kids are practicing more than they normally would."

Mutually Beneficial Bond

In addition to sharpening academic skills, the HABIT dogs also help children form healthy four-legged friendships.

"There are also children that didn't want to interact with her [Vegas] because they don't necessarily have a lot of experience with dogs. Or maybe they do not have good experiences with dogs. I think there is an important social benefit for the children," said Wright.

"With Vegas here they kind of get a sense for how to care for a pet, too," said Benson. "Some of the children in high-risk situations may not have a lot of positive interaction with animals or be around animals that get the best care. This program is something that makes the world a better place for children and animals."

If you want to learn more about HABIT what is required to participate in the volunteer program, visit the organization's homepage at the UT Vet School's website.