Janine Sigley never that imagined that helping her daughter find volunteer work would change the lives of hundreds of other children.
When her daughter announced that she wanted to volunteer with animals, Sigley took to the internet to do some research on her behalf. She came across SitStayRead, a Chicago-based program that uses a very special technique to improve the literacy skills of vulnerable kids: reading to patient, gentle dogs.
“I’ve grown up with dogs and we’ve brought up our kids as bookworms, so books and dogs were firmly in my life anyway,” says Sigley, who hails from the Tweed region of northern NSW. “When I saw that someone had put those things together in primary schools, I just thought it was a great idea.”
Inspired by both the simplicity and success of the SitStayRead program, Sigley called her friend and fellow mum, Leah Sheldon.
“We were both on the P&C at our kids’ primary school’s P&C and I knew Leah loved dogs. Together we thought ‘yes, we can do this’,” she says.
And so, in March 2009, Story Dogs was born.
The Story Dogs program matches “dog teams” – an accredited companion dog and his owner – with year two students, usually aged seven or eight, whose reading abilities are below their peers.
Four children per class are selected by their teacher to spend 20 minutes every week reading one-on-one to the dog team in a quiet area such as the library or the verandah outside the classroom.
“Each child reads a story to the dog, gives the dog a treat and bonds with that dog,” Sigley explains. “The dog team sees the same four children every week, so the children start to build a relationship with the handler and the dog.
“We’ve found that the kids who are chosen often don’t have books at home and perhaps don’t have a stable home life, so to have that dog turn up to see them every week is huge.”
Research suggests that struggling with reading is often not about intellectual limitations, but rather fear or a lack of confidence. Sigley says dogs make ideal reading companions for kids because they don’t judge, laugh or tease.
“A lot of the opportunities for reading at that age are when the child is reading to the teacher or another adult, or to a small group of their peers. That is often a very frightening situation for children,” she explains.
“We take that fear away, so it’s just the child and the dog, and the dog’s licking the child’s nose or falling asleep in his lap. The handler is there to help with words and the child is able to relax, read at his or her own pace and become more confident.
“A dog doesn’t care if kids stumble over words or don’t get it right.”
Passion for reading
Story Dogs now has 45 dog teams in 26 NSW and Queensland schools, helping more than 200 kids each week. All types of dogs, except restricted breeds, can participate after being assessed by the program’s qualified dog trainers. Handlers also receive comprehensive training.
“The dogs need to be calm around noises and things surprising them, and the handler obviously has to be in control of their dog at all times,” Sigley says.
Studies show that kids and dogs are a powerful combination when it comes to reading. In the USA, comparisons between student who read to dogs and those who did not found that the children who read to dogs increased their reading rate by 24 words per minute, while those who read alone increased their reading rate by just nine words per minute.
Sigley says the changes in the program’s young participants are truly remarkable – and it’s not just about reading.
“Yes, their reading levels are improving, but it’s also about attitude change. As soon as you’ve got a child who wants to read, you can do so much more with them,” she says. “All of a sudden reading isn’t frightening or boring or uncool. Instead it’s, ‘I want to be with this dog because reading is fun’.”
Primary school students’ reading abilities are monitored according to national Reading Recovery Levels, which extend from level one to 30+. Year two students’ reading skills should be between level 12 and 23, depending on the systems used by individual schools. Most of the year two students referred to Story Dogs program are reading at less than level 10.
“We work with a lot of kids who are somewhere on the Autism Spectrum and many schools don’t have much hope for these children to get all that far with reading,” says Sigley.
“We had one child who was with Story Dogs for a year and went from a reading level of one to a level of 18, which was an incredible improvement. The principal said he hadn’t expected that child to ever get to that reading level.”
Dogs across Australia
Far from being embarrassed or ashamed of their reading difficulties, Sigley says children who participate in the Story Dogs program become the “special kids” in their classes. “Being part of this program sets them above, because every child in the classroom wants to read to a dog,” she says.
Some teachers are also able to use the program as a behaviour management tool. “Sometimes there’s a bit of time left over after the four kids have done their reading, so the teacher can send out other kids as a reward for good behaviour,” says Sigley.
The program even works for children who are wary around dogs. “Sometimes we get a child who’s really scared of dogs. That’s fine – we just let them sit on the other side of the handler, away from the dog. But by the end of term they’re always all over the dog,” she says.
It costs around $500 to put one Story Dogs dog team into a school. Story Dogs receives no government funding; its main source of income is private and corporate sponsorships of the dog teams. Currently, 21 teams are sponsored.
While the program is gaining momentum and expanding slowly, Sigley hopes one day to see dog teams helping children improve their reading skills in every school in Australia.
“I’d love to see dogs in every school – not necessarily even Story Dogs, just dogs,” she says.
To find out more about Story Dogs, sponsor a dog or enquire about becoming a volunteer, visit www.storydogs.org.au