When children read to Ben, he doesn’t criticise or correct their pronunciation. He may prick up an ear, close his eyes, or even stick his tongue out, but he never judges.
That’s because Ben is a border collie who works with the charity, Pets As Therapy.
Children from the autistic department at Joseph Rowntree School in York have been welcoming the four-legged teaching assistant into the classroom as part of Pets As Therapy’s Reading to Dogs scheme over the last year.
In a quiet corner of the classroom, the children greet the dog enthusiastically before settling into comfy chairs and picking up their books. The dog watches and listens carefully, turning his attention to whichever child is reading. With his head on his paws, he cocks an ear and appears to be listening to the story.
He offers quiet encouragement and an uncritical ear to children who struggle with school work. Staff at the school say they have noticed a real difference in the children’s behaviour since Ben was brought in.
“It has definitely improved their confidence,” says Hannah Turlington, head of the autism department at the Joseph Rowntree School.
“It is not really about teaching them to read but it is about teaching them to read to audiences.”
She adds that the children’s speech has improved since the sessions began.
“One child just wouldn’t read to us at all before. It wasn’t that he couldn’t read, he just wouldn’t read, but that has now improved. The children are really excited about Ben coming in and especially look forward to giving him a treat at the end.”
Now the charity hope to expand the scheme and offer more Yorkshire schools a helping paw to encourage children to read.
But how can a dog really help a child to read?
Dinah Baynton-Dibley from Pets As Therapy says it is all about gaining the confidence to read to an audience, without being criticised.
“You take all the pressure and all the stress away and you make the reading a fun environment. Instead of standing in the classroom and reading out loud you’re sitting on a bean bag cuddling a dog and you’re reading a little story to them. The dog is totally non-judgemental; it does not correct the child,” she explains.
“That puts the child almost in a position where they feel empowered because they are explaining it to somebody who knows less than they do.”
This helps the child relax and once the stress has been taken out of it, they start to enjoy the reading.
The idea is that children will then go home and tell their parents that they read to a dog at school and this will encourage them to read more at home.
“All of a sudden they’re reading to their parents or they’re picking books out to take in to read to the dog. Children who enjoying reading, naturally improve,” says Dinah.”It’s a very simple concept and the children love it.”
The charity has 5,500 Pets As Therapy (PAT) dogs ‘qualified’ to work in schools. So far 160 dogs are taking part in the Read to Dogs programme in the UK, largely in primary schools. Three dogs are working in Yorkshire schools, but Dinah says she expects this number to grow as more schools get to hear about it.
The charity has been providing therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospices and care homes for nearly 30 years. It launched its Read to Dogs scheme after hearing about a similar project in the United States, called the READ programme.
Following a pilot project at a primary school in Hampshire , the charity decided to roll it out nationally a year ago.
Ben’s owner, Valerie Witcher, 69, was one of the first volunteers to bring the Read to Dogs programme to Yorkshire.
She says: “I’m sure some of them have really improved since I started coming to the school. They can just read naturally, there is no interference.”
She adds that her 11-year-old border collie seems to really enjoy the sessions.
Evidence into the effectiveness of the Read to Dogs programme is still anecdotal. No academic research has been carried out in the UK as yet, but the charity says it has received very positive feedback from schools who have taken on a PAT dog.
“As we progress with this we will be producing guidelines and research papers for people to access,” says Dinah.
Any legal breed of dog can work with the charity ‘whether it is a pedigree, cross breed or mongrel’.
“We have everything from Chihuahuas to Irish wolf hounds, we have deaf dogs, blind dogs and three-legged dogs,” says Dinah. “The whole ethos of the charity is that if the dog has a natural in-built, friendly temperament they can work with us. These dogs must actively enjoy being with people and love having a fuss made of them. They are the sort of dog you walk over to and they immediately roll on their bellies for a tickle.”