Making Reading Fun
Who would have thought that listening to a BBC radio program from London would shine a light on a fantastic program that’s run in Australia? Well that’s exactly what happened. That’s how I discovered the wonderful Story Dogs program that was featured.
I contacted and chatted with Co founder and Managing Director Janine Sigley and found out more about the wonderful ‘Story Dogs’.
I have an environmental science background, which led me to working with many teams of volunteers. I really loved the volunteer sector and being with passionate people willing to give so much of themselves for their chosen cause.
I also grew up with dogs and a love of reading. I have vivid memories of primary school reading groups where we all got to read a page in turn aloud to the small group. I was always looking ahead practicing ‘my page’ before it was my turn so I never really enjoyed or remembered the stories.
How did it start?
I was Googling ‘volunteering with animals’ for my primary school aged daughter and up popped ‘Sit Stay Read’ and ‘READ’, two organisations in the USA who were doing reading dogs in schools. I had never seen anything like it and I just loved what they were doing and thought we could do that here. I flicked the link to another parent, Leah Sheldon, who was on the school P&C who was also a dog lover and she agreed we should make it happen in Australia.
We then spent the next couple of years, part time, getting our processes and procedures in place. We then approached the school our children went to and asked if we could run a small trial.
The Principal, who knew us well, said ‘yes’, but also thought it was just a gimmick that would soon go away.
After one school term we had the classroom teachers wanting more dog teams and the Principal suddenly realised what a great asset to his school the program was. That was in 2009 and we have grown exponentially ever since.
What were some of the challenges/risks you faced?
Early on we had to overcome the stigma and blanket rules in schools of no dogs on site. Dogs in the school grounds were seen as a risk and a nuisance.
We had to work hard to make sure our risk management was really tight and that the Principal, teachers, students and parents all could see a benefit of having Story Dog visits.
Funding the program is also a major challenge. We are very passionate about keeping the program free to all students in all schools.
We came up with the idea of finding local sponsors for each dog team. This is working well with local businesses or community service groups such as Lions, Rotary sponsoring dog teams.
Our biggest challenge now is keeping up with demand. We have a waiting list of schools who would like to be on the program, however it takes time to find suitable volunteers and also financial resources to put on more Dog Teams.
How does Story Dogs work?
A Story Dog visits the school at the same time each week for approx. 2 hrs. During that time they see 4 – 5 students.
The students come out of the classroom and sit one-on-one with the dog team for 20 minutes each. The same students see the dog team each week thereby forming a bond and gaining confidence. We aim to see students for at least two school terms if not the whole year.
When children read to a dog, the outcomes are amazing! It is a non-judgemental setting, the children’s focus improves, their literacy skills increase and their confidence soars. The accepting, loving nature of dogs gives this program its magic and helps children relax, open up, try harder and have fun while reading to a friendly, calm dog.
How many schools does Story Dogs operate in?
We partner with over 300 primary schools
Why is Story Dogs important?
Schools and teachers have limited resources and thus are not able to provide one-on-one reading sessions for their students.
Story Dogs can pick up those students who do not get any other supports and who just need a boost.
If a child cannot read fluently by the end of primary school they will potentially fall behind in high school and become possibly disengaged with learning and education.
Being able to read affects all parts of a person’s life in our society, possibly more so with more information now available only in a digital format.
COVID restrictions have meant that some children have missed out on school for over 200 days. The potential for them to be left behind is huge. More Dog teams are needed to address this new issue.
Wonderful Story Dogs: Benefits
What are the benefits of Story Dogs?
Feedback from one of our volunteers: ‘Last year one of our students was a selective mute. Although able to communicate, the child chose not to talk to adults. Fortunately for us, whispering the stories to my dog ‘Roger’ was ok. When Term 1 started this year, we (‘Roger’ and I) were delighted to have the same student in our Story Dog sessions.
Things started off well and with a bit of encouragement, the whisper turned into reading so that I could just hear the story. Now as the end of Term 1 draws near, I can report that my wonderful student is reading aloud to us both and is interacting positively with my dog and myself. ‘Roger’ always snuggled up to the child and now he gets proper pats!
I can’t say whether this miraculous turn around had anything to do with Story Dogs, but teachers are delighted at the progress seen. So are we’.
A selective mute student is one who, for a many different reasons, does not speak at school but generally does at home’.
How can people be involved?
Have a look at this link https://www.storydogs.org.au/how-to-volunteer Please check out our website and complete our online application form. Once we have this we will be in touch to potentially get the ball rolling.
How can their dogs be involved? (what do you look for, temperament?, breed?)
A suitable dog is one who is calm, obedient and likes to be around people. The temperament is of most importance and the dogs willingness to be involved.
A happy dog is a safe dog. We accept most breeds and sizes of dogs, from Great Danes to Chihuahua’s. We however do not see many working dog breeds as they are much happier chasing things than laying on a mat!
What demographic (‘type’) or people volunteer? eg: retirees, all ages?
If you have a couple of hours free every week then this may be for you.
We mostly have retired women as our volunteers, but also have lots of Mums, professional people and some men.
Is there training available for people?
Story Dogs provides all the necessary training for the person. We have training days where you watch a training video and step through a manual.
We focus on how to run a reading session, how to make it fun for the child and dog and how to manage your dog at school.
You will then do an In School Training session, where you will tag along, without your dog, with an experienced volunteer. This way you see firsthand the program in action.
Become Involved: Wonderful Story Dogs
How do schools become involved?
Schools can download our School Information Pack and complete the EOI (Expression Of Interest) form here
Once we have this we can get in contact when we have a suitable volunteer ready for their school.
Alternatively a school can also let their community know that they are seeking suitable volunteers and, once found, we can then accredit, train and support that person back into the school.
Janine and the team can be contacted via the Story Dogs website here
or go to : www.storydogs.org.au
Wonderful story dogs!
Jill Weeks is the author of 21 Ways To Retire and co-author of Where To
Retire In Australia and Retire Bizzi. Information Provider For Great Retirement Lifestyles.
She is a regular contributor to radio.