Jenny Campbell’s not quite sure who benefits more from the visits she makes every Wednesday morning to a Canberra school – her greyhound rescue dog, Foxie, the children they visit, or herself.
It’s the highlight of her week, putting the former champion greyhound racer into the car and heading off to the school. When she gets there, Foxie settles in with a child who reads to him. Not all the children read to the dog, just children who, for whatever reason, have issues reading aloud. Over time, this remarkable literacy program, known as Story Dogs, has shown that the comfort a dog provides can give children a new-found confidence.
“You can’t believe the difference it makes,” Jenny said. “Sometimes it’s really hard to tell who benefits the most from this.”
Story Dogs was started by two mothers in Queensland in 2009, designed for children who found reading aloud challenging. Through the project, being with the dog in a non-judgmental setting, the child grows in confidence, it helps them relax and, as a result, their literacy skills improve. The child can also read at his or her own pace, without pressure – except perhaps for a gentle demand for a pat or two.
For Jenny, it’s a three-way process. She rescued Foxie just after his last race two years ago. A breeder of labradors, she had lost her beloved Gina to a spider bite and was mourning that dog’s loss.
“It took me a long time to get over Gina’s death,” said Jenny, who ran the Canberra horse agistment property Pine Ridge for more than 20 years.
Since selling the property and leasing it back, and moving into an apartment, Jenny said she knew it was time to get another dog so started asking around about what dog would be best suited to her new lifestyle.
A greyhound, just about everyone told her.
“I really liked the idea of adopting a dog,” she said. “I’d always worked with racehorses … and greyhounds are not so different from them. They can both be thoroughbreds.”
Foxie, at first, was very timid and not a fan of men. Athough his previous owner had cared for him, the dog’s early life had not been good and Jenny was keen to find ways to develop his confidence and bring him out of his shell.
“His previous owner was great,” Jenny said. “When I took him back to see him, Foxie did that helicopter thing with his tail so I knew he was happy to see him.”
As an animal person, Jenny knew Foxie’s road to confidence would be slow, but she also knew he had it in him. She began including him in social situations, taking him to outdoor cafes and slowly introducing him to new people.
“It took about eight months for him to feel comfortable with people,” Jenny said. “He was nervous at first, but as a working dog, he had a strong work ethic so I knew he’d be fine.”
The next step was to have him accredited for Story Dogs. That meant basic tests to show he was not easily distracted or motivated by food, and remained calm even when surprised. He ended up “passing with flying colours”.
“The only thing he didn’t pass was lying down” Jenny said. “Greyhounds don’t sit usually, it has to do with the way their bodies are and we couldn’t get him to lie down.
“The Story Dogs people said he was great other than that and that getting him to lie down was the only thing we had to work on with him.”
The day after he did the test, the Story Dogs team had a meeting and told Jenny he was so good he could become a “standing dog”.
“I was so thrilled,” she said. “Then from the next day on, Foxie just began to lie down when asked. It was quite overwhelming.”
Foxie passed his accreditation more than 18 month ago and has been going to Canberra schools every week since then.
“I look at how far he has come and how far the children have come with this, you know I can’t tell who has benefited more.”
Story Dogs operates at a number of Canberra and region schools and libraries. More information is available on its website.
Jenny and Foxie will be at Belconnen Mall this Sunday, 18 December, from 1:30 pm to 4 pm and from 1:30 pm to 5 pm on Tuesday 20 December helping to wrap Christmas gifts as a fundraiser for Story Dogs.