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Byron Shire
October 18, 2021

Barking books, it’s story dogs!

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Dogs can help children learn to read. This is one of the astonishing findings that has led to establishing the nationwide program Story Dogs that sees trained volunteers and their dogs going to schools to assist target children to improve their literacy.

The Northern Rivers Community Foundation (NRCF) recently allocated funding to grow dog teams in the Lismore region by 15, thus helping more than 75 disadvantaged children in the first 12 months.

Based in Murwillumbah, managing director Janine Sigley says, ‘It’s amazing what a difference a dog makes.’

‘We have volunteers who have done reading groups in schools before and when they start out with groups they say the difference a dog makes is amazing.

‘The whole situation changes with the student. Instead of it being a stressful experience all that is taken away because the dog becomes the focus. We get the students to read to the dog and the adults help. The kids really relax into it.’

Calm, friendly dogs needed

Volunteers with calm, friendly dogs are offered insurance, training, uniforms and accreditation.

‘That is our biggest cost,’ says Ms Sigley.

‘Without the money from the NRCF we wouldn’t have been able to expand into Lismore. We currently have 315 dog teams throughout Australia. Schools are very receptive. Teachers understand they can’t possibly get enough one-on-one time with every kid in the class and to have a session with struggling readers that is free is a huge help.

‘We only ask they do one fundraiser a year to keep it going.

‘The program targets struggling readers from year 2 and above and regularly sees four to six students per week.

‘We are coming across more English-as-an-additional-language kids, kids on the spectrum, and home life is evolving to not be as conducive to reading as it used to be. The bedtime story isn’t as common as it used to be.

‘Reading isn’t focused on at the home and some children have never been read to. Even if we spend three weeks reading, it’s so valuable. It shows that it’s not just about decoding language, it’s about engaging in the story.’

For Janine, the magic happens with the dogs and books.

‘Children growing up with digital devices can’t tell if a person is reading or playing a game or betting on the TAB, so it’s hard for them to decode what is happening. Before, you could see your mum or dad read a book or newspaper.

‘Kids use digital media for games so even though their parents might be reading, if it’s on a device it can be misleading.

‘That’s were the disconnect comes through. Story Dogs will never go digital’, says Janine who is committed to getting real dogs and real books into schools all around the country.

If you have a friendly dog and you’d like to volunteer or you are interested in a program for your school, go to storydogs.org.au.

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