How dogs help little children learn to read

John Thistleton 16 October 2017

Pawn’n’Tales founder Sharon Stewart with Rocky, a golden retriever. Photo: Supplied.

Sometimes the solution to a little girl’s problem with learning wags its tail.

Anxiety probably caused her selective mutism. She could not talk to adults at school, but happily spoke to the kelpie off a farm in Goulburn. And that’s how she learned to read, first to the kelpie, then to others. A truffle dog from Taralga has similarly helped little children read at Goulburn Mulwaree Council. Now the people behind Paws’n’Tales are looking for more owners with friendly dogs to volunteer and help children read.

An unexpected setback, such as losing a parent, can cause a child to fall behind, and unless they improve they can face a downward spiral with their learning.

Sharon Stewart, who founded Paws’n’Tales in the Southern Highlands five years ago, says a dog can make a child with reading challenges feel comfortable, that they are not being judged and that they are valued.

A registered nurse with a lifelong love of animals, Ms Stewart says all breeds of dogs are suitable, from chihuahua to newfoundland, so long as they will engage with people, love people and are confident and happy in new environments.

Paws’n’Tales dogs sit with children aged four to eight years, for about 15 to 20 minutes each week during school term.

“These are kids identified by schools or their parents as having not just reading issues, but confidence and self-esteem issues and often there might be an associated medical issue or social issue,” Ms Stewart says.

Learning to read to a dog becomes so enjoyable for the child it teaches them to return to school with a different attitude to learning.

Paws’n’Tales coordinator Lisa McKay says a dogs calmness helps children to overcome their difficulties.

“They will practice their reading to show the dog next time they meet, to impress them. It is almost as if they are teaching the dog,’’ says Ms McKay.

Goulburn Mulwaree Council young people’s services coordinator Michelle Stuart says Paws’n’Tales helps with literary and social skills and animal awareness.

“Building a positive relationship with reading and books is extremely important for young children,” Ms Stuart says. Seeing a trained dog helping children to focus is inspiring. “Many of our patrons express their joy at seeing children having fun and reading to a dog in the library space,” Ms Stuart says.

Sharon Stewart says children participating in Paws’n’Tales have gone up about two levels in their reading.

“But the feedback we are getting from the parents seems to be more focused on confidence and social issues and how they have improved their socialisation and eye contact and all these little side things which you wouldn’t really think would happen. They seem to be a result of what the dogs do. They are clever little devils, the dogs.”

Volunteers learn about the children beforehand, what their issues might be, something they are particularly interested in or something they can build a conversation around.

Ms Stewart says volunteers are amazed at the difference they make with their dogs.

“Volunteers enjoy that time with the children, the one-to-one, the week to week smiles on their faces and seeing the kids running into the library, with a big smile. They tackle the dog, they come in and bring a special little book they want to read,” Ms Stewart says.

“The dogs need to know the child might lean on them, they might throw an arm over, we need to know 200 percent the dog is happy with that, that they haven’t any sore spots, sensitive areas where if a child touches them they are going to snap.”

From Thirlmere, Ms Stewart founded Paws’n’Tales with her dog Zep, a Siberian huskie, and her mother and a friend and their dogs.

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