Good morning from Barney Poodle and me. As some of you know, the much loved Barney is a Story Dog. The Story Dogs Literacy Program is my great love…after my other loves…including my love for Barney Poodle, of which I have plenty.
(Some would say too much, but that could be a certain husband’s point of view which may be a little coloured by the green-eyed creature that is not a dog!)
Here is Barney being a literary dog. He is wearing his orange Story Dogs’ vest. He is one of more than 150 dogs throughout Australia who visit primary schools each week to help children with reading difficulties. He lies around listening to stories which are read to him by the same four children each week. Not surprisingly, he gets to like them. He snuggles in. They get to love him. He gets an awful lot of pats and cuddles and hugs.
If the children get a word wrong, Barney doesn’t laugh or sneer. If they stumble a bit, he waits patiently. When they finish, he gives them a high five, like this Story Dog from Queensland.
Below is Barney’s friend, Lumi, being read to by a little girl at a local school. Like all Story Dogs, Lumi had to pass a test before she could become a Story Dog and, like all Story Dogs, she is gentle and smart and very good at listening. Sometimes she might look as if she’s fallen asleep but in fact she’s just listening with her eyes closed…as dogs do.
Story Dog volunteers are some of the most wonderful people I’ve met. (‘Why wouldn’t they be?’ says my husband. ‘They love kids and dogs.’) They come from every walk of life. Some are retired, some work four days a week and volunteer on their day off. How generous is that?
The volunteers don’t teach the children to read. The dog is a calming, loving influence and in their company the child’s fear of reading quickly disappears. As the volunteers share their love of stories, the children soon want to read the stories themselves.
The Story Dogs Literacy Program was introduced into Australian schools in 2009 by two smart women from northern New South Wales, Janine Sigley and Leah Sheldon. They were inspired by an American program, R.E.A.D. (Reading Educational Assistance Dogs). If you’re into statistics, there are now more than 150 dog teams in 100 schools throughout Australia, helping 800 children each week.
By 2020, we aim to have a Story Dog in every Australian primary school.
Three years ago, I fell in love with the ideas behind the program and introduced Story Dogs into Victorian schools. Barney and I are now part of a dedicated team of volunteers. In Melbourne, we have over 40 teams, helping 160 children in 25 schools each week.
For a variety of reasons, children struggling with reading are often the most vulnerable children in schools. These are the children we work with. And each week, I hear wonderful stories from the volunteers about their joys and achievements.
Like the boy in foster care who was always absent until he started reading to a big soft German Shepherd. Now he doesn’t want to go on school camp because he will miss his Story Dogs session. Last week he asked if he could read to the School Principal who’d shown a special interest in him. And he read with all the confidence in the world.
And the selectively mute girl who would only read to her Labrador Story Dog if the volunteer kept her hands over her ears. (All expressed in sign language.) Until the day she began chatting to the volunteer, and reading fluently, and talking to everyone in the school.
And the little boy who could read quite well but his Dad died unexpectedly and every week he came to lie on the floor and cuddle Barney Poodle. And other children in other schools who were included in the program for some TLC because one way or another they had also lost parents. Did the Story Dogs help with their grief? I know what I think!
And the little boy who confided that he had no friends at school except for his brother’s friends. And that was why he loved Story Dogs because Beau Story Dog was his best friend.
And the little boy who told his Mum: ‘Today was the best day of my whole life. I read to the Story Dog.’
What more can I say?
The Story Dogs Literacy Program is entirely voluntary and we receive no government funding at all. If you’d like to donate, or just share our stories, you can find Barney Poodle and a host of other Story Dogs at www.storydogs.org.au.