Pets improve reading skills

Students with their reading dog.

Centaur Public School has gone to the dogs - but these are no ordinary dogs.

They're story dogs and they are part of an unusual program to help children improve their reading and communication skills by having them read to a trained companion dog.

The Story Dogs program is based on the American literacy program Reading Education Assistance Dogs or Read which began in 1999.

Story Dogs was established 10 years later in Murwillumbah by Janine Sigley and Leah Sheldon. Ms Sigley was earlier this year named Lismore electorate's Woman of the Year for her work with the program.

It operates in 15 mostly public schools in the Tweed region of northern NSW and 24 dog teams each week help more than 100 children. Another 11 trained dog teams were due to begin work this term.

Centaur principal Darren Scott is an enthusiastic advocate.

"The children just love it and it works," he said.

"It is such a joy to see our students sit quietly, read and pat our beautiful story dogs as they improve their reading skills."

The dogs are accredited by a certified Dogs NSW trainer as companion animals and are considered volunteers who, Ms Sigley said, "get paid in love, hugs and treats".

Their volunteer handlers are trained in basic literacy education, focusing on the NSW Reading Recovery model, to ensure children are helped in ways that improve their chances of reading better.

Kylie Collier, who has two children at Centaur, is a Story Dogs handler who brings her labrador, Sully, to read with students at the school.

"I joined up with the program to help children feel comfortable when reading," she said.

"I have enjoyed bringing Sully to school and seeing the kids' joy as they pat her then sit and read to her."

The students agree. "We love reading with Sully. She is soft and cuddly. Sully sits quietly and listens to us read."

Liz Kelleher began with the program at Centaur last year and now visits the school twice a week with dogs Honey, a golden retriever, and Monty, a King Charles spaniel.

"My own children attended Centaur primary and were accomplished readers. I feel it is important for me to revisit at Centaur and help those children who are in need of assistance," she said.

The program consists of one-to-one 20-minute sessions and caters mostly for Stage 1 - usually Year 2 - students.

The books are generally chosen by the classroom teacher or the volunteer, with input from the students who are also encouraged to build on their literacy skills by writing letters to the dogs at home.

Any dog, except a restricted breed, can become a trained story dog though it must be immaculately groomed and have regular veterinary checks.

Photo: by Melissa Corowa.

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