Doggy Readers with Story Dogs
Learning to read is often less about intellectual limitation than about overcoming fears. Penny Brand finds out how our favourite pooches are helping little people read.
Don’t be offended guys but it appears the science is out on dogs.
As it turns out our playful, doe-eyed canine friends are actually more important to us than our fellow humans.
That’s right, humans like dogs more than humans.
A study published by the US Animals & Society Institute has found that people are more empathetic towards dogs than each other.
So, it comes as no surprise that therapy dogs are being needed in schools more than ever.
Australian non-profit organisation Story Dogs was the brain child of two primary school mums, Leah Sheldon and Janine Sigley, who in 2009 witnessed the triumph of a similar US school literacy program.
First trialled at Murwillumbah East Public School, Story Dogs was an overnight success, with notable improvements in participating students.
The organisation then expanded across Australia including the Sunshine Coast with about 20 schools from Glasshouse Mountains to Noosa.
Sunshine Coast Co-ordinator Maree Keating has been taking her eight-year-old golden retriever, “Jasmine”, to many local schools since 2021.
Maree says after seeing an advertisement in a local magazine she jumped on the opportunity to volunteer, knowing she and “Jazzy” would be the perfect fit.
“We work with grade two specifically because if kids don’t get the intervention at that stage it becomes harder for them to read,” Maree says.
“We aren’t there to teach them to read but to teach that reading is a positive thing.”
Children who are slow readers, suffer from learning disabilities, are special needs, or who are having troubles at home, are chosen by each school to participate, and Maree has seen some incredible results.
“We try to make it as fun as we can. The kids aren’t reading to me, they are reading to my dog,” she says.
“Jazzy just sleeps, but I say the dog can still hear us. The kids hold her paws. It’s really beautiful to see.
“I think parents are busier these days and don’t have time to read to them at home.
“One boy I had could read, but told me he didn’t need to read because he only likes maths. But I said you still need to read maths problems. So I showed him how.
“I really find what they are interested in, like if it’s dinosaurs, we find dinosaur books. I had one girl who I couldn’t find anything that was interesting enough, but I heard she was into dodge ball. I found something on the internet about dodge ball and she liked that one.
“Another girl, from a non-English speaking background, could read English, but I realised she didn’t have much comprehension about what she was reading. We’d stop and talk about what we were reading and get them to talk about it.”
Currimundi State School Principal Jillian Pass says students love reading with the dogs.
“They eagerly look forward to their Story Dog sessions each week,” Ms Pass says.
“The individual attention and encouragement that the students receive from the Story Dog carers builds individual student confidence in their own abilities and has the most reluctant readers fully engaged.”
Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress.
When humans interact with dogs, oxytocin levels seem to increase in both humans and dogs.
Yandina Psychotherapist Claire Day, from Relate Counselling, says there is preliminary evidence that suggests therapy dogs can enhance a child’s well-being in a variety of settings such as schools and hospitals.
Ms Day, who recently started including her cat, “Ambi”, in her private therapy sessions says animals have been found to reduce physiological symptoms of stress through lowering cortisol levels and increasing positive emotions.
She says dogs in schools have shown to promote positive attitudes towards learning, reduce negative behaviours like avoiding tasks and aggression in the classroom, as well as encouraging better social interactions.
“My clients have loved having Ambi here. It’s so wonderful to see them relax around him. When they are relaxed they tend to open up more and it enables us to work through their issues more proficiently.”
As of February 2023, Story Dogs has brought their working literacy dogs to almost 3,000 children across Australia, who are being supported by 563 dog teams in 357 schools.
There are five coordinators on the coast, each requiring around 45 volunteers.
Story Dogs does not receive any government funding and relies on volunteers and sponsorships.
To continue this good work in literacy growth in schools, Story Dogs needs your help.
Just $30 will provide a school term of one-on-one reading sessions with a dog and struggling young local readers.
Or if you have a calm and relaxed dog, plus time to commit, there could be some little readers waiting for you to volunteer!
If you’d like more information check out www.storydogs.org.au or phone Maree on 0403 7746 40.