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A friendly dog and a good book can improve children’s literacy

Mia reads her book to Honey and Jacqui MacMillan, the Story Dogs team at Buninyong Primary School, Victoria. Image: Carol Saffer

STORY Dogs, an Australian child literacy charity, recently partnered with Dr Claire Stevens, veterinarian, author and dog lover, as an ambassador for its aim to make reading fun for children.

Story Dogs Co-founder Janine Sigley said “Claire will be helping Story Dogs raise the profile of what we do and help us to work towards our mission of helping more children become confident lifelong readers.”

The program facilitates the engaging idea of a child reading to a dog in a one-on-one setting while at school.

In a non-judgmental manner, the child’s focus improves, their literacy skills increase, and their confidence soars.

“Dr Stevens is so passionate about dogs and children, making her the perfect ambassador for Story Dogs,” said Ms Sigley.

Dr Stevens said the more she learnt about the Story Dogs mission, the more she realised how it aligned with her professionally and personally.

“I am an advocate for animal welfare with a deep love of dogs,” Dr Stevens said.

“It was an honour to be asked.

“The other side of it is I love literature; I’ve written a book, and I’ve studied vet medicine. My education and love of literature was a catapult for my life journey.”

She is thankful for her life’s opportunities and sees encouraging reading in young people as personally meaningful.

“I am a mother of two kids, and I am reading with them at home and seeing first-hand the challenges in their confidence levels and fears around reading,” Dr Stevens said.

“It is this personal experience which makes me more in tune with the work that Story Dogs is doing in the schools.”

Ms Sigley points out that while the focus of the reading session is literacy, the other benefits are self-confidence, increasing socialisation and breaking down fear of dogs, so children become comfortable around canines.

“The best feedback I get from teachers is the change in attitude,” Ms Sigley said.

“Especially boys who go from being a reluctant, quite fearful reader declaring ‘readings not cool’ to end up saying: ‘No way I’m going to miss Story Dogs day.’

“As soon as you have a child who wants to learn, you can do so much with them.”

Pam and Jim Sellwood have first-hand knowledge of these successful outcomes.

The Sellwoods retired dog trainers with two golden retrievers, 12-year-old female Marlee and Chevy, her eight-year-old son, are part of the Story Dogs team.

They have visited Pottsville Public School in northern New South Wales on Fridays for the last ten years.

“We have a nice quiet area set up outdoors where we sit side by side with the two dogs on two blankets, and each sees a child at the same time,” Mrs Sellwood says.

The Year 2 children to decide each week who they want to read with – Pam or Jim.

Mrs Sellwood recalls one young boy in particular when his teacher described him as ‘I don’t know what he can do; he just sits there and doesn’t write or talk or read.’

“Marlee is an incredible dog; she intuitively senses when a child has a problem,” Mrs Sellwood said,

“When the child sits down, Marlee will put her head in their lap or her foot on their knee; she knows which a child needs a bit of love.”

When the boy arrived at the reading time with a book he chose to read to Marlee, he immediately hugged the dog  around her neck.

“He stumbled with his reading at first because he was nervous, yet each week he got better and ended up being a brilliant reader,” Mrs Sellwood said.

Mrs Sellwood said she and Jim experience personal joy when they see the children improving.

“They are more confident, they participate in classroom activities where they didn’t before, experiencing the whole flow-on effect and attitude change is wonderful,” she said.

“Helping a nervous child who can’t say boo, and at the end of the year they are telling us their life story, we just love it.”

Story Source: Story Dogs

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Carol Saffer

Carol Saffer is an award-winning journalist enthusiastic about creating copy that engages audiences. She is curious by nature, possesses a growth mindset and thrives on new and unusual challenges. Carol has experience as a reporter for various regional Victorian newspapers and writing for Business Day in The Age. Her previous career was in the fashion industry, and she holds post-graduate degrees in business and journalism.

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