An initiative which aims to help children with literacy and confidence issues through reading dogs is set to launch across south Wales following a successful pilot across four Welsh counties.
The Burns by Your Side scheme involves volunteers and their trained companion dogs visiting schools to sit with children who could benefit from improved reading and communication skills. There, the child will sit and read to the dog while the volunteer ensures the child’s and dog’s safety at all times.
Burns by Your Side, a charity scheme operated by leading natural pet food provider and Kidwelly based firm, Burns Pet Nutrition.
The tried and tested method helps children gain confidence in building their vocabulary and fluency by reading to a dog. Specially trained volunteers and their companions act as therapy dogs, alleviating anxiety and stress often experienced by children that struggle in certain educational settings.
Research conducted at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) to measure the impact of bringing dogs into the classroom has revealed that children respond positively to the presence of dogs, looking forward to reading sessions, and feeling more motivated and enthusiastic about engaging with learning.
The news follows Sir Anthony Seldon’s announcement at the Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference at Birmingham University where he said that every school should have a wellbeing dog. The leading educationalist spoke about how a classroom pet can reduce anxiety among young people and could be key to improving mental health in schools.
Commenting on the scheme and the role therapy dogs can play in the UK’s education system, Dr Helen Lewis, UWTSD' Primary PGCE Programme Lead said: "The dog is a non-judgmental listener, whose very presence may calm and relax reluctant and anxious readers. Dogs do not judge, glance at their watch if it is taking a long time to read a page, or sigh in frustration at mistakes - they are willing companions and their silence speaks volumes."
As well as dogs receiving specialist training, children involved in the scheme are taught how to handle the reading dogs appropriately, including how to greet and respect dogs and how to be safe around them. Anyone with a well-behaved dog over the age of 18 months can apply to be a Burns by Your Side volunteer but securing a Silver Kennel Club Good Citizen Award will speed up the process.
Since initiating the pilot in 2016, demand for the scheme has increased significantly. The charity is keen to hear from Headteachers and Library Chiefs who would like to source a BBYS volunteer team from their own school or community whether teaching staff, parents or grandparents.
During the past year, a number of top organisations delivering Therapy Dog services, as well as Burns by Your Side, have been working with the Kennel Club to produce the minimum recommended standards for dogs in schools. These guidelines which have been distributed to Ofsted and Estyn and the Education Sector will help create the safest environment for children and the welfare of the animals within a school environment.
Grace Vobe, a Burns by Your Side volunteer and owner of Hoola, a Burns by Your Side trained whippet, said: “It’s an incredible initiative to be part of and it’s so special knowing that my beloved Hoola is providing such joy and positive results for the children we work with. We both received thorough training that really outlined the process and everything that would be involved. I couldn’t recommend applying to be a Burns by Your Side volunteer enough, it really is life changing.”
If you know a school interested in participating in the Burns by Your Side reading to dogs scheme, Burns would love to hear from you. Visit http://www.burnsbyyourside.org/ for further information.