Spending time reading aloud to a dog sounds like heaven to us here at AWC headquarters. But for kids in the Story Dogs program, it's more than just puppy cuddles and books – it's the key to improving literacy.
Founded by Janine Sigley and Leah Sheldon in 2009, Story Dogs has a simple goal: to make reading fun for children so they become confident, lifelong readers. And of course, the kids help the dogs to understand some of the trickier human words…
Who let the dogs in… to the classroom?
Janine and Leah started Story Dogs after reading about two similar programs in the USA: Sit Stay Read and the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program. Through the Story Dogs volunteer teams, they are now helping over 2 500 kids each week across Australia with the assistance of gorgeous doggos like Baron, Golden, Bella, Jessie, and Spotty.
Learning to read is one of the most important steps in a young child's life. Some children find it difficult for many reasons – not just because of learning disabilities, but also because of shyness, lack of opportunity, or not enough guided support.
The Story Dogs approach allows kids to relax with a friendly puppy while reading. And it's a formula that works!
“There are so many reasons I think Story Dogs is amazing,” says Year 4 teacher Rebecca Campbell from Hincks Avenue Primary School. “It is fantastic to see the look on the students' faces on a Thursday when they see Jill and Bella enter our library for our class's time with them. The growth of the students that work with Jill and Bella has been astonishing.”
For some students who struggle with reading, they simply need a non-judgemental, quiet and safe environment. Sitting on the floor with a patient puppy, giving out pats and interacting with the dog can be a perfect setting for these kids.
As Hincks Avenue student Kadence says, “I like it because you get to teach the dog and it helps you to read.”
A unique solution to an unfortunately common problem
Literacy in Australia is generally very high. But the NAPLAN results from 2019 indicated that 6% of Year 3 and 5 students, or approximately 135,833 students – that's more than 5 400 classrooms full of students! – were below the national minimum standard in reading.
Story Dogs is a unique one-on-one intervention to help these struggling students.
“Every dog is different, and every student is different,” Story Dogs founder Janine told us. “We often find that the dog will react differently to each child and possibly even differently depending on the child’s emotional place at the time of the reading session.”
Reading through the impact stories on the Story Dogs website, you can see that the dogs provide kids with love and encouragement – just by being patient listeners. Reading to the puppy gives kids a reason to focus; they want to make sure that Honey really understands.
Children who have struggled to read, and also kids with other difficulties with verbal communication, see amazing improvements by getting to spend time with their favourite Story Dog and giving them a treat.
“At the end of the session we usually give the child and dog a reward,” Janine says. “The child receives a bookmark and the dog a pat, brush or treat. Having the child cue the dog to do a trick and give a treat is often a very special moment.”
The dogs behind the stories
Not just any dog is cut out to be a Story Dog, and competition amongst puppies is fierce to enter their ranks… Okay, not really. But dogs and their humans must pass accreditation and a Dog Team Assessment as well as a full day training program. We know that dogs are reliable, but their humans must be able to commit to attending their chosen school regularly for at least four school terms. It's no small commitment, and yet Story Dogs has over 500 Dog Teams across Australia.
Any dog over the age of one year can be a Story Dog, as long as they have a calm temperament and are well-behaved.
“As we work with lots of older dogs and they are calm and gentle many dogs will go to sleep when the child is reading,” Janine says. “Of course we say that ‘Buddy listens better with his eyes closed’ if a child thinks they are not listening.”
The kids don't seem to mind if their Story Dog is lulled to sleep by their reading. “I like reading to Didi because when I read she lays down and goes to sleep,” says Hincks Avenue student, Daiton.
How much is that doggie?
As with any charitable program, the main challenges for Story Dogs are people and funding. After volunteering for 9 years, Leah has stepped back from the program, while Janine is now a full-time employee. Finding and training the right volunteers who can genuinely commit to the program takes time and money.
“The most challenging part of running Story Dogs is keeping up with the huge demand we have for our program,” Janine says. “We have a waiting list of over 50 schools who would love the program but we need to find more volunteers. Starting new volunteers in new places costs money and resources so this has to be done in a sustainable way.”
So if you're wondering how much it costs? It's around $500 per year to put a Dog Team into a primary school.
If the idea of helping dogs to read – sorry, helping kids to read – appeals to you and you'd like to become a sponsor or donate to Story Dogs, check out their funding page.