Story Dogs reading program brings out the best in children struggling with literacy
Seven-year-old Amelie Petreske is the envy of her classmates when she is with Clementine. (ABC News: Shelley Lloyd)
Once a week, Amelie Petreske becomes the envy of her classmates at Hilder Road State School at The Gap in north-west Brisbane.
- Story Dogs’ success in improving literacy will be analysed by Monash University
- Program founder Janine Sigley says she wants to see a dog in every school
- Brisbane teacher Dayle Davidson says it brings rapid and dramatic improvements in reading
That is when the seven-year-old leaves her Year 2 classroom to spend half an hour reading with Rhondalee Hunt and her great dane-cross Clementine — and the results have been “incredible”.
It is part of a program called Story Dogs.
Across Australia, there are 400 volunteers and dogs going into 230 primary schools every week, helping 2,000 children who struggle with their reading.
Hilder Road teacher Dayle Davidson said the results for Amelie and her classmates had been “fantastic”, describing Story Dogs as their best reading intervention program.
“It’s the one where we see the quickest gains for the kids,” she said.
“There’s something in the children’s relationship with the dog and their mentor, that they just feel comfortable, they let their guard down, they feel that there is no judgment and we just see them soar.
“We’ve got one student this year who went from a reading level of five up to a reading level of 18 since the beginning of the year, and that’s just incredible … we really only expect that sort of gain over a couple of years, that’s how dramatically it’s moved.”
Rhondalee Hunt with Amelie Petreski, whose reading has improved dramatically with Clementine. (ABC News: Shelley Lloyd)
Story Dogs has been operating for almost a decade, and program founder Janine Sigley said demand for the program continued to grow.
“More and more schools are wanting to help their students the best ways they can,” she said.
“When children read to a dog, the outcomes are amazing.
“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.”
Ms Sigley said the best part of the program was that it benefited all involved.
“The dogs love the attention, the kids love the dogs, the volunteers get enormous satisfaction in seeing the children grow into being better readers, and teachers love the extra help for their struggling readers,” she said.
“It’s a wonderful win-win situation all round.”
‘I couldn’t believe the results’
This is the second year Ms Hunt has taken Clementine to Hilder Road State School.
She said both dog and trainer underwent strict assessments before being allowed into a school, including a working with children check.
“She [Clementine] had to have toys and treats given to her and taken off her to make sure she wouldn’t respond negatively,” she said.
“She had to walk past lunch boxes with food and try not to eat them — that was the hardest task.”
Ms Hunt said she became involved with Story Dogs because she was looking for an activity for her dog, and said while she knew she would enjoy it, she had been “amazed” by the program.
“Within a couple of weeks of working with the children, I just couldn’t believe the results and the response,” she said.
“You can see how gorgeous it is and some of the students have had dramatic improvements … the progress is incredible.”
Ms Hunt said Clementine enjoyed the reading days as much as she did.
“She knows that she is the star of the show, she comes to school and everyone wants to give her attention.”
‘I think she is listening to me’
When Amelie started reading with Clementine this year, she knew 38 sight words.
She now knows 200 and has progressed from reading level nine to 17.
“It helps me to read and I like the dog reading right next to me,” she said.
“I think she is listening to me, but sometimes in books Clementine falls asleep.
“It’s definitely more fun than staying in class.”
Ms Sigley said three masters students from Victoria’s Monash University planned to study Story Dogs in a bid to quantify the program’s success.
“We know from anecdotal evidence that the impact on the child’s self-esteem, their self-confidence, their fluency and their reading levels is huge,” she said.
“We have lots of teachers say that the child has come out of their shell or that they are now confident to read in front of others, so we know that it makes a difference.
“I would like to see a dog in every primary school, that’s our big, big goal and along the way we’ll just help one child at a time and see how we go with that.”