The READING DOG
‘COCO HELPS THE CHILDREN FIND THEIR VOICE’
JO RUSH, 47, is a full-time mother and part-time volunteer. She lives in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, with husband Martin and children Abi, 14, and Dylan, 12, and their dogs Coco, a Labradoodle, and Flo, a Sproodle.
State education is under such pressure that I think it’s important parents do all they can to support schools. While my children were at primary school I had volunteered to come in and help as a parent reader, but once they’d moved to secondary, I wondered how else I could help.
My dog Coco and I were already volunteering in care homes with Pets as Therapy (PAT), an organisation that sends volunteers and their pets into hospitals, care homes and schools. But then I heard about the READ2DOGS scheme, where registered PAT dogs are taken into the classroom. The children read to the dog, reducing stress and promoting an enjoyable reading experience.
I knew straight away I wanted to get involved. Now, Coco and I spend a morning a week working in a local primary school. I’m given a different group of children each term, including those who the teachers feel will most benefit, perhaps because they’re struggling with their confidence, or have literacy or behavioural issues.
Coco is on the lead and she’ll usually sit on the floor. We’re there to make the child comfortable, so I ask where they’d like to sit – some will want to be close and stroke the dog as they read, some just want to be nearby, while others sit with Coco’s head right in their lap. During the session I encourage and coax, so for example if Coco’s tail starts to wag or her ears prick up, I’ll say, ‘Look, â€‹she’s really enjoying your story.’
One little girl comes in armed with books and Coco will help her pick one to read by placing her paw on the cover. Some find their voice, others who stumbled over words become more fluent. I had one child whose parent was poorly and for whom the sessions were something fun to focus on, another who had sessions after break to allow him to be calmer and classroom-ready. Another child was fearful of dogs. He went from not wanting to sit anywhere near Coco to being able to reward her with a biscuit after his session. So that child improved his reading and tackled a phobia too.
I see tangible progress and the teachers are grateful and positive about the benefits. There’s also research to back up these anecdotal findings. I truly feel this is an amazing scheme. I’m proud to be involved and I want to work with even more schools in the future.
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