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FEATURE - Unleashing Literacy with Story Dogs

In a bid to support and encourage reading among young learners, Story Dogs, a unique literacy program, is having a positive impact in primary schools across the Sunshine Coast and Hinterland region



By Victoria McGuin


Drawing inspiration from the successful American initiative, Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.), Story Dogs was introduced to Australia, aiming to replicate its achievements in improving reading levels and boosting children's confidence.


Founded on the principles of creating a safe, fun, supportive and non-judgmental environment, the Story Dogs program pairs children needing literary assistance with calm dogs, fostering a space where their reading skills can flourish.


The dogs have passed an assessment by an independently qualified dog trainer to determine they have the characteristics and temperament required to be a Story Dog.

Julie-Anne Simpson, Story Dogs Sunshine Coast Coordinator, Mountain Creek and Hinterland Region, recently shared details with me about the program's impact and expansion.


"I learned about Story Dogs through a neighbour several years ago and have now been volunteering for them since 2021," said Julie-Anne.


"We are currently partnering with just under 30 schools on the Sunshine Coast and Hinterland and nationally are volunteering in 400 schools, helping over 2800 children."

Chevallum State School and Montville State School stand as stalwart supporters of the program, witnessing firsthand the positive effects on student literacy levels.


“Being a small school Montville only has one dog team whilst Chevallum currently has three and would ideally like to make that five. Palmwoods and Woombye have both signed on recently, and they, along with Chevallum, need volunteers for the program.


"The feedback we receive from the schools is that we have a positive impact, particularly in terms of increased reading levels at the year-end. Children who otherwise may not look forward to going to school are excited to come to school on reading day, to spend time reading to the dogs."


Central to the program's success are the dedicated volunteers and their canine companions, who provide a comforting presence for the children as they delve into the world of literature.


"While any kind of volunteer work can provide a sense of purpose, working with your own beloved dog and witnessing the positive effect they have on the children, together with the bonds we make with them, is a truly joyful and fulfilling role," Julie-Anne said with a warm smile.


Reading sessions take place in a quiet area of the school grounds, such as the library or outside the classroom. A reading session is approximately 20 minutes long, where each child is one-on-one with the dog team. Books are chosen to suit the student's reading level.


During the session, the handler often speaks through the dog, such as; “Sam doesn't understand what is happening on this page, could you help him out?” The child becomes the teacher as they help the dog understand, and their confidence soars.


“Our volunteers come with fun, interesting books that are specifically chosen for beginner readers,” continued Julie-Anne. “The students also have input into what they read. We encourage the students to write letters to the dogs between reading sessions, further encouraging literacy skills.”


I asked, is it always the same dogs at the schools? “Each school is allotted their own dog teams who remain with them, so yes, the same dogs are always at the same schools which are agreed upon with the volunteers,” Julie-Anne said. “It gives the children consistency and comfort.”


The program sounds so appealing, I considered joining myself with my dog, and Julie-Anne explained how locals can get involved and how much time they ideally need to give,


“There are two ways locals can become involved, one way is through volunteering with your dog, or a dog you have a close bond with, such as your child’s or neighbour’s dog.


“After a dog assessment from an independent and qualified dog assessor together with a short volunteer training morning, the time commitment is just two hours a week during term time of school.


“As volunteers, we understand many are retired and wish to travel during term time and this is entirely acceptable.


“The second way is through sponsorship. As a completely self-funded charity we rely entirely on donations. A dog can be sponsored by any person or business which enables the sponsor logo to be placed large and proud on the dog vest worn by the four-legged cuddly billboard.


“A sponsored dog can also visit their sponsor’s business for promotional events. The cost is $500 per year. This covers running costs including books, a book bag, a blanket for the dog to lie on, stationary and reading vests for a volunteer and dog.


“A Bluecard is also needed and we can assist with this”

I asked Julie-Anne if she had a particularly fond or positive memory of a student since using this program.


“I have many heart-warming stories from various students, however one that comes to mind is of a child who read with me who struggled to read due to ADHD. They saw me at school over a year after they had read with me and my dog Poppy and said to me: ‘You know Poppy helped me so much the year I read with her, I can read so many more big words now!’.”


For those interested in volunteering or sponsorship opportunities in the hinterland schools, more information is available on the Story Dogs website, storydogs.org.au.

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