DOGGY TREAT: Helen, Coco the dog and Nyrinaa share a book during a Story Dogs session. PHOTO: STORYDOGSInset, Holly the greyhound, shows just how eager she is to get on with the job.
DOGGY TREAT: Helen, Coco the dog and Nyrinaa share a book during a Story Dogs session. PHOTO: STORYDOGSInset, Holly the greyhound, shows just how eager she is to get on with the job.

Doggone great way to help kids read

IF you enjoy reading, being with your dog and making a difference to kids, Story Dogs needs your help.

The program, which assists Year 2 students to develop their reading, is already active in Dalby, but just starting in Toowoomba and needs volunteers with calm, relaxed and obedient dogs.

And because the program runs during school hours, the majority of volunteers are retirees.

Local coordinator Petra Westphal has just moved to Toowoomba from the Sunshine Coast, where she also established the program.

There are now 40 volunteers working in schools across the Coast and six volunteer coordinators.

Petra became involved after adopting rescue greyhound Holly about five years ago.

Realising what a placid dog she was, Petra looked for ways they could help others, and discovered Story Dogs.

Started in Murwillumbah, northern NSW, in 2009, it has become a national program, supporting more than 2600 children each week with their reading through 15-20-minute sessions.

The idea is that by targeting literacy problems early, the cycle of frustration and falling behind in learning can be broken.

"Older volunteers often find it a very rewarding thing to do - it's about having a purpose, making a difference, spending time with someone younger and sharing something you love," Petra said.

"My oldest volunteer on the Sunshine Coast was 91 and the youngest in their 30s, with a lot of people from 60-80 years old."

Petra said the intergenerational relationship worked for both sides, particularly in today's world where many children don't have access to grandparents locally and vice versa.

"It's lovely for children to have that experience of an older person in their life," Petra said.

Training and ongoing support are provided for the volunteer, who also needs a Blue Card to work with children.

The dog can be any breed but must be more than 12 months old and pass vet and obedience checks before being accepted.

Each volunteer is provided with a book bag of six beautiful picture-based story books with limited words aimed to entice rather than intimidate the child, and the book bag is swapped each term.

The child chooses which book to read, and having the dog as their audience means they don't see reading as a chore.

"The dog doesn't care if you read fast, slow, mispronounce or get stuck on words, it's totally non-judgmental," Petra said.

Teachers report not only does children's reading confidence grow through the extra one-on-one attention and practice, but absenteeism decreases, as the children don't want to miss their time with the Story Dog.

As well as helping students identified by teachers as struggling readers, sessions are also set aside to reward those who have improved or as a treat for good readers.

Volunteers need to be able to dedicate two hours each week at a set time, preferably in the morning when students are fresher, to attend a participating school.

Petra is still working with schools, which has been difficult during COVID-19 restrictions, but said "once they have one team in place, it doesn't take long before they are asking for more … it makes such a difference".

She hopes to have the program operating in term three, saying that Story Dogs could be more important than ever, with some children likely to have fallen behind in their reading without the school routine.

To find out more, call Petra on 0419 137 716, go to www.storydogs.org.au, or to contact Dalby coordinator Lyn Clancy, email lyn@storydogs.org.au.


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