“Look, the dinosaurs are getting into the rocket, Dashi!”
Just when I thought I’d seen every kind of magic that comes from the bond between humans and dogs, I met Dashi, Canberra’s very own Story Dog.
The pyjama-clad whippet and his seven-year-old reader are snuggled into a couch stashed in a hidden nook at Dickson Library. Today is the boy’s first time reading to Dashi.
Just five minutes ago, he clambered up on to the couch, clutching a carefully chosen book to his chest and casting a wary sidelong look as Dashi settled into a comfortable listening position beside him.
Dashi sighed softly, ready to listen; and after gentle reassurance from his human companion Robyn, the child opened the book and launched tentatively into both the story and a new friendship.
I ask Robyn to clarify what a Story Dog is. She encapsulates it in just five words: “It’s a literacy confidence enabler.”
Robyn explains that the Story Dogs program works so well for hesitant, anxious readers because a story dog listens patiently, doesn’t rush the reader, doesn’t judge mistakes, mispronunciations or slow, faltering efforts. Reading to the dog takes the onus off the child’s performance and the focus is instead on showing the dog the story.
Dashi is not the average dog. He is quiet, calm and tolerant, the perfect aptitude for a Story Dog. He loves everyone he meets, but his soft spot is children.
A story dog session lasts about 20 minutes. Dashi enjoys all types of stories, from a portion of a chapter book to having a picture book explained to him.
Today’s reader has selected Dinosaur Rocket and after hesitantly introducing the book, he uses the pictures to tell the whippet all about how the dinosaurs’ rocket to the moon, as Dashi sits curled up beside him. He draws Dashi’s attention to certain points of interest. Any earlier trepidation has melted away and he becomes a teacher, a mini David Attenborough transporting Dashi into a world of moon-bound dinosaurs.
Dashi’s human, Robyn is vital to Story Dog sessions. They are a tight team. In a story session, Robyn is always close by to gently prompt a nervous first timer and reassure them just how much Dashi loves story time. She also facilitates the games and treats that mark the end of a session.
After the story reading, Robyn demonstrates several game options. The games are another way to build connection and trust between the child and their reading companion. Some games are as simple as throwing Dashi’s quacking duck for him, whereas others encourage physical contact with the whippet. Today, the seven-year-old chooses to throw him his toy for a while and then progresses to a game which ends up with Dashi nibbling a treat right out of his hand.
He leaves happily with his smiling Mum, their next story session already booked.
As we pack up, I ask Robyn why she began volunteering with Story Dogs.
“Dashi loves kids, that’s the first reason. The second reason is that I love reading and it makes me happy to share the joy of reading to reluctant and struggling readers,” she said.
Robyn recalls a particular boy who came to a Story Dogs session. On that first day he said that he hated reading and that he couldn’t read.
“Then show Dashi the pictures and tell him about the story,” Robyn encouraged.
As the sessions continued, showing Dashi the pictures progressed to reading story books; then because he loved Lego, he would read Dashi books of Lego instructions.
His mum would usually bring him to the session, but one time his grandmother came with him. As the child began reading to Dashi, his grandma began sobbing and through her tears she said, “I never thought I would see him read, it’s so wonderful.”
Robyn’s eyes moisten as she remembers this moment, and I think that not all superhero duos wear capes. Sometimes they wear orange vests and pyjamas.
Story Dog sessions are free. You can find out about session times and locations at Libraries ACT.
Has your child attended a Story Dog Session? Comment below.