Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: March 25, 2023

It’s a weekday morning in a small school in northern NSW and young students smile and giggle as they read aloud to a gentle labrador dog called Piper.

Piper listens without judgement as the children sound out more challenging words.

She even lets them lie on her if they need to take a moment.

Piper and her handler Helen Barnett, a retired teacher, are a part of the Story Dogs program, a not-for-profit reading support initiative operating across Australia.

Each week the duo visits Year 2 students at the Kempsey East Primary School on the Mid North Coast.

“Our mission is to make reading fun for children and to encourage them to be confident, lifelong readers,” Ms Barnett said.

“Piper has the most placid nature, so she really suits the Story Dogs philosophy … the children use her as a pillow or lie on her.”

The program aims to help students who are struggling to learn to read by providing them with a positive, calm environment.

“When they first start the children are a bit hesitant, but then they develop confidence reading to the dog,” Ms Barnett said.

She said the dog was a calming influence.

“I saw one little boy who wouldn’t read in front of the class or the teacher, but by the end of the time he had spent with the dog he was quite confident to stand up there in front of the class and read a story,” she said.

Helping young readers

The Story Dogs program started at Murwillumbah on the NSW North Coast about 14 years ago, based on a program in the United States.

Co-founder Janine Sigley said it had proved a huge success and spread to 75 locations and 355 schools across Australia, with more than 560 volunteers.

“We have amazing feedback from teachers and from parents and also from our volunteers,” she said.

Kempsey East Primary School principal Penny Chow said the school had been running the program for three years.

It also has a separate therapy dog on site.

“Dogs have that special nature, they do things I think humans can’t do and really calm students down,” Ms Chow said.

“We see great improvements with their reading, moving up levels and working on what the teachers are focusing on.”

Kempsey East Year 2 student Samantha Coulter said she looked forward to reading to Piper each week.

“She’s really soft,” she said. “It’s really relaxing.”

Program expands

Ms Sigley said the Story Dogs program had grown in an “organic way”, following demand as it arose.

“Victoria is going through the roof; we have a huge growth spurt happening there … so it’s looking really strong after the COVID slowdown.”

The program is also expected to expand to Darwin this year.

Ms Sigley said more volunteers were needed.

“It’s also important the dog really enjoys the whole process … we have dogs of all shapes and sizes.

“My first dog [in the program] was a small cross-breed who was a very placid little dog.”

Ms Barnett said there were many personal rewards.

“I enjoy reading with the children and being a little part of their lives and their school,” she said.