Eleven-year-old Braefoot elementary school student Rachel Smith reads a book to Toby

Therapy dogs help kids overcome barriers to reading

Toby is a terrific listener when Rachel Smith reads aloud.

“Right on cue, Kristy flounces into the dinner hall with her little gaggle of friends,” the 11-year-old begins to read.

Toby looks at her, lies down and gets comfortable as Rachel continues with ease. “They push their way to the front of the queue, then saunter over to the table where I’m sitting alone with my macaroni cheese and chips.”

Toby relaxes, focusing his attention on Rachel, who periodically lifts her head from her Chocolate Box Girls novel to scratch the small dog behind his ears.

The seven-year-old Jack Russell terrier-King Charles spaniel mix is a therapy dog with St. John Ambulance, and provides children with a supportive ear while they improve their literacy.

“Often times children aren’t comfortable reading aloud to their peers in class,” says Kate Heron, SJA’s regional co-ordinator for therapy dogs on Vancouver Island. “The great thing about reading to a therapy dog is they are a nonjudgmental audience.”

Braefoot elementary is the first school on the South Island to use SJA’s Reading Tails program in class. The read-to-a-dog service has been around for the better part of a decade on the mainland, but only recently came to Vancouver Island.

Daphne Taylor, Toby’s owner, sits with her dog and the Braefoot kids one-on-one while they read to their four-legged friend. She sits back and listens attentively, too, to intermittently help with pronunciation and offer positive feedback. “The children seem very confident, very willing to do their reading when Toby’s here,” Taylor says.

“There’s a very quick bond that’s formed between a small animal like him and small children when they walk into the classroom and see him for the first time,” Taylor said.

Braefoot principal Tarj Mann agrees. He sees great value in the Reading Tails program, as it gives readers literacy practice, as well as a sort of therapeutic friend.

“The students really focus and really enjoy it, and they do a good job,” he says. “Literacy is such a big thing in our school. It’s the foundation of what we do, along with numeracy and social responsibility.”

Not just any dog is suited to be a therapy dog. Toby had to go through rigorous training to prove he could stay calm in typical classroom scenarios, like being cornered by groups of kids or inundated with loud noises. He is the first child-certified therapy dog in Greater Victoria.

SJA’s therapy dog program is not only for kids and reading. The dogs are also brought into schools and children’s hospitals to provide comfort, and senior care homes for companionship. “St. John Ambulance is probably best known for first aid care, but that isn’t all there is. It’s our mandate to respond to wherever there’s a need,” Heron says. “Children’s literacy can always improve.”

Reading Tails was launched on the Island in the Comox Valley in 2009. Now SJA hopes more schools in Greater Victoria will take advantage of the program.

Toby is a head-turner when Taylor walks him through the halls of the school on a thin red leash. But he’s much more than a novelty when students have a pair of floppy, furry ears listening to their stories.

“They are reading to the dog, not me,” Taylor says. “I find it very satisfying for my own self, but they find it reassuring, and get confidence and self esteem from having him as their audience.”

For more information on the therapy dog program, or to get involved, visit www.sja.ca/bcyukon.

kslavin@saanichnews.com

Literacy is key

• On June 2, Braefoot held its seventh annual Book Binge, where students exchange old books for more challenging literature to get them through the summer.

• Books cost one ticket each, and students earn more tickets by bringing in more books for their peers to take home.

• “It’s inspiring to see kids come in with an armload of books they’d like to see passed on to students in younger grades,” principal Tarj Mann said. “It touches on the literacy and social responsibility aspects of our core values.”

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