Rain, hail or shine, ‘story dogs’ are now there for the kids who need them most.
Story Dogs is a national non-profit education program that helps young school students gain confidence with their reading while also having fun.
The program started 18 months ago in Western Australia but since its humble beginning at just one school, it has thrived.
Five WA schools are now involved in the program including schools at Rockingham, Kwinana, Mandurah and Waroona.
The dogs mainly work with grade two students.
Story Dogs coordinator for Rockingham and Kwinana, Lindy Ettridge, attends Mother Teresa Catholic College in Baldivis every Monday morning with her young Labrador, Poppy, to see five or six kids a day.
The sessions only last about 10 minutes.
But Ms Ettridge says even in that short time the program can improve the lives of many children struggling with reading.
“The dogs don’t correct and they don’t judge, so the kids feel they can make a mistake without being told they have done something wrong,” Ms Ettridge said.
“Saying that, we are there to offer some help when the kids are struggling on a word, but we like to take a step back as we’re mainly there for support, and not to teach.”
Ms Ettridge previously worked with Assistance Dogs WA and got involved after hearing the work Story Dogs does in the community.
She felt Story Dogs was another great way to show how well dogs can help people and explains it’s not just the kids who enjoy the lessons.
“Every time I grab my vest to head out to a school [Poppy] gets really excited, so it’s great to know not only we volunteers love what we’re doing for the kids, but the dogs enjoy it as well,” Ms Ettridge said.
Assistant Principal at Mother Teresa Catholic College, Janine Moore, said she was very pleased with how Story Dogs had helped some of the school’s students.
“The students’ confidence and reading skills have improved greatly and by reading to a dog they see it as a reward, rather than a punishment for needing extra help,” Ms Moore said.
“The handlers are well trained and they conduct the lesson from the point of view of the dog, as though the kids are teaching the dog about the story.
“If a teacher or an adult were to ask questions or try and teach, the students would clam up.”
Year two student, Alex Hames, has been with the program since the start of the year and said the dogs had really helped him with his reading.
“I used to really not like to read at school and at home, but after I started reading to the dogs it got easier for me,” Alex said.
“I feel more comfortable reading because I’m just reading to the dog.
“I’ve also started reading to my own dog at home and he really likes it as well.”
While volunteers are always needed, the process to begin working as a Story Dog volunteer can be quite a drawn out exercise.
Ms Ettridge said the first step for anyone considering becoming a volunteer is to submit an application. Then a co-ordinator will arrange a meet and greet with the applicant and their dog.
“After this we have a professional dog trainer in to assess the dog, a training day for the volunteer and an orientation with them and the school they will be attending,” she said.
“The volunteers will also need their working with children cards, and full health checks on the dog, so it is a lengthy process but we need all of the safeguards to ensure we have the right person for the job.”
The Story Dogs program is looking to expand across WA.
Ms Ettridge said two more schools were starting in the Rockingham area, three more people were going into a school at Coogee next term and one person will be starting at a school in Mandurah.
“As we begin to get more recognition and word of mouth starts going around, we start to see more people wanting to volunteer and more schools wanting to get involved, and with more involvement, we can help more kids, which is the whole aim of Story Dogs,” Ms Ettridge said.
To learn more about Story Dogs, head to the organisation’s website.