Paws for applause as dogs help young pupils to learn to read

Spaniel Dylan helps another young reader

It’s a simple idea, but it took an imaginative learning support teacher, a positive head teacher, and an animal charity. Oh, and Dylan and Scruffy, two very child-friendly dogs.

Sacha Oates is the support for learning teacher at Bannockburn Primary School in Stirling who has introduced Scotland’s first Reading with Dogs scheme, with a little help from Canine Concern Scotland and their Therapet volunteers.

The idea

After hearing about some of the fantastic work that Canine Concern had been doing across Scotland – including taking therapy pets (Therapets) to prisons, hospitals, libraries and care homes – Sacha and her head teacher, Audrey Ross, saw that Therapet sessions had the potential to really help some struggling learners at their school.

Sacha found that children who lacked engagement with reading were often dealing with a lot of other issues that the school needed to support – like emotional problems, isolation and low self-esteem – and wanted to lead a project that aimed to improve the overall wellbeing of a child.

“It’s through my job that I became passionate about the effect dogs could have on the learners in our school and the role that they could have. I worked together with the head teacher to put a plan in motion.”

As luck would have it, while Sacha and Audrey were chatting about the possibility of bringing a pet into the school, Canine Concern were on the look-out for a school which might be willing to host their Therapet project. So Bannockburn became the first Scottish school to join forces with Canine Concern earlier this year and since then the Reading with Dogs project has gone from strength to strength, echoing success in other parts of the world.

The reading session

Sacha explains what happens in a Reading with Dogs session. It’s a cosy, relaxed and short activity, where a child sits with a therapy dog and is asked to read aloud.

She says:I take a very limited role and try not to put too much pressure on the child. I want it to feel like it’s just the dog and the child. There’s also the dog’s owner, who’s there to make sure the dog is happy and comfortable, and I’m there for the learner.

“I very much take a step back and stay in the background because I don’t want the child to feel like I’m listening to them, or that I’m going to be correcting them or judging them. We’ve created a very relaxed environment upstairs in one of our library rooms. We even have beanbags on the floor and lots of blankets because we realised right at the beginning that we had to make sure the environment was correct.

“They start reading aloud to the dog, and you can see the dog relax and calm down immediately as well. It’s a lovely thing to witness how quickly both the dog and child relax into it, it’s really nice. We try and take a step back and allow for that moment to happen with the child and the dog.”

The sessions are for 15 minutes, which is seen as best for both the child and the dog – as the child doesn’t have the strain and pressure of reading aloud for too long, and the pet doesn’t become overtired (the dog may have up to six sessions a day with the children.)

The results

Sacha says: “We’ve had an absolutely amazing response. It’s actually quite emotional at times because we did have some learners we were concerned about in terms of their emotional wellbeing and their engagement in learning.

“It’s been emotional for some of the staff watching, because we really saw such a huge impact, the results were so positive, over such a short space of time.

“(The children) felt like the dogs weren’t there to judge them and they weren’t there to listen to their mistakes. The children felt the stress of reading in front of people was taken away from them, and they were free to just enjoy it. They just seemed happier and more engaged.

“Every time I go into the classroom the children’s eyes light up. They’ll ask: ‘Are you taking me now?’ ‘Are the dogs in now?

“One child said to me yesterday when the dogs were in, ‘Every time I read with the dogs I can’t take the smile off my face.’ For him to say that was just absolutely lovely and that’s why we’re doing it, it just makes it all worthwhile.”

And don’t just take Sacha’s word for it. Here’s some other feedback from the pilot group:

“When I am reading with Dylan, I feel calm. I have enjoyed getting to know Dylan, he is really friendly and he makes me laugh. After I read with him I get to play with him too. Dylan makes me feel happy when I read to him and when I stroke him I feel calm and relaxed. I think Dylan like it too because he lies on my knee. I would like to keep reading with Dylan. I think it makes my reading better!”

“I love reading with Scruffy because if I make a mistake I know he will not mind. It makes me feel more confident. I would love to read with Scruffy more because he gives me the time I need to go back and correct myself. He doesn’t rush me.

Sacha says that at the beginning of the pilot project she gave the children a questionnaire on self-esteem, and found that many lacked confidence in their abilities and in themselves. But throughout the project she’s seen a real change in their demeanour, and they’re becoming visibly happier in class. “To see just that little thing that you can do can have such a massive impact on them, it’s just lovely, it’s really nice.”

The future

This session, the school are continuing the project, with a slightly younger group than in the pilot. Sacha says: “We wanted to see if we could really have that impact early on because obviously the earlier we put these interventions in, the better in the long-run for the children.”

Her hope is to have a full-time therapy dog at the school, maintaining their national pioneering role.

“Our aim is to have my dog in the school so we really have that flexibility to deal with situations as they happen, so we’re not only going to focus on reading attainment and enjoyment, but also de-escalation and stress reduction…so if we have a situation in the playground where a child is distressed, and who needs that time to calm down and reflect on what’s happened, and really needs that comfort but maybe doesn’t feel comfortable taking that comfort from an adult…it’s often the case that the child would rather seek comfort from a dog.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that we have to do that with such young children but that’s what we’re seeing, that there’s a need for that. We’re looking for different ways to support that. Fingers crossed that it all works out and we get my dog in and go from there.”

The innovative idea seems to be catching on. “There’s already a lot of schools emailing me and asking about the project because they’d like to trial it in their school…they’re seeing the impact in our school and they want to try it out.

“We were listed for the Equality Improvement Awards, so we actually will be attending an awards night at the Radisson in Glasgow in November. It was under the heading of ‘Creative and Innovative Practices at Raising Attainment for Children’ so we’re really excited about that. Even just the nomination, it’s lovely to feel that hard work and passion you’re putting in has been recognised.”

For more information about Canine Concern Scotland, go here

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