Dogs can be clever creatures: many respond to a variety of commands, and some perform fun tricks. But even the cleverest canines can’t read – a fact that isn’t stopping some schools from inviting them in to help kids improve their literacy skills.
Janine Sigley, co-founder of Story Dogs, coordinates schools with volunteer dog teams (that is, a dog and its human) who act as parent helpers with a difference.
In a session, the dog team will sit with a child (usually around the age of seven or eight) as the child reads aloud to the dog. “The magic is that the dog doesn’t judge: the child can go at their own pace and make mistakes without worrying about it,” Sigley tells SBS. “They read one-on-one with the dog team for about 20 minutes and then go back to the classroom.”
That one-on-one time can make a big difference in itself, Sigley explains: “It’s one-on-one time with someone listening and taking an interest in them and, for some of these children, that doesn’t happen at any other time.”
Helping kids love books – and dogs
With a focus on the story and having no right or wrong, kids learn to love books. “One of the biggest impacts we have is on the children’s attitude to reading, and their confidence,” Sigley explains. “Once they have that confidence, their tested reading levels increase.”
There are also cultural barriers that the dog teams are trained to assist with.
“In Australia, we take dogs for granted – lots of people have them in their homes and backyards – and the whole premise for Story Dogs is that a good relationship exists (between the child and dogs),” Sigley says. “However, in some cultures, that relationship with dogs is not the same: they might have only known dogs as protectors, while other cultures don’t have dogs at all.”
“We can still help the child with a dog, but it takes a little longer and we do things a little differently; we let them decide whether they want to be close to the dog or not, and choose how that relationship works.”
“Our volunteers model the behaviour of how to respect a dog and how to treat it well, so the kids pick up on that as well.”
It’s one-on-one time with someone listening and taking an interest in them and, for some of these children, that doesn’t happen at any other time.”
Ultimately, a relationship between children and dogs often develops. “We work in schools with a lot of different nationalities, and once the kids get used to the dogs they’re like magnets towards the dog,” says Sigley. “They can’t get enough.”
How the concept came to be
With a staggering 900 children taking part in the Story Dogs program each week, it’s fair to say the concept, which began in the U.S.A., has been a success.
“It’s a concept that’s quite well known in America,” says Sigley. “I saw it on the internet … and emailed it to a friend of mine and we decided it would be great.”
The magic is that the dog doesn’t judge: the child can go at their own pace and make mistakes without worrying about it”
It was a tricky idea to get across the line with schools, though. “We started with the school that our children were at. The principal thought it was a bit of a gimmick, but he let us do it, so we put three dog teams into the school as a trial. By the end of the first term the teachers were asking for more dogs.”
The dogs are chosen through rigorous testing, to make sure they’re a good fit with the program.
“To be a Story Dog, we need the dog to be calm, gentle and obedient. We have a ten-point test for the dog and the handler as a team,” says Sigley. “We have lots of different breeds, and it has to suit the dog without making it feel stressed.”