'Reading Dogs': A Scheme by Sarah Barreto

The new programme ‘Reading Dogs’ introduced by Head Teacher Sarah Barreto is in full swing at Our Lady of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Nursery and Primary School in Teignmouth.

OLSP Pupil reading to Wren
Reading With Dogs PhotosFor pupils at Our Lady of St Patrick’s Primary school (OLSP) in Teignmouth, term started with some lovely new additions to the classroom.

Mrs Sarah Barreto, head teacher for the last 2 years, brought her two black Labradors Millie and Wren into school to meet the pupils. However, these dogs aren’t just there for show, they play an important role in the teaching and learning of pupils at the school.

Most adults are apprehensive about speaking in public and the young people at Our Lady of St Patrick’s are no different. The school’s research shows that young people can become nervous and stressed when reading to others in a group. However, when a Reading Dog enters the group, they often become less stressed, less self-conscious and more confident.

“The research we looked at shows dogs can improve children's literacy, behaviour and self-esteem, as well as teaching them to respect and care for animals.”

Inspired by The Kennel Club’s Bark and Read programme, Mrs Barreto has introduced her two family dogs as Reading Dogs, to help children struggling with reading. Instead of reading to their teacher or peers, children read to the dogs. It may sound odd at first, but it has proved to be a great help in many schools across the country, and Sarah hopes it will have the same positive effect at OLSP Primary.

Research from the charity Dogs Helping Kids (DHK)* suggests “Dogs give unconditional acceptance, as they are non-judgmental, which is especially crucial to struggling, emerging readers...”

They continue to say “…above all they make amazing listeners, providing the children with a sense of comfort and love.”

The presence of dogs has proven to be very calming and this can then improve concentration and ability to learn. Sarah reassures us that the dogs are incredibly calm, and have been socialised around children from a very early age” so wouldn’t do anything that could frighten the children. She carried on to say “I am so delighted to see my friendly dogs snuggle up for a story with pupils, improving their reading skills by giving them extra motivation and confidence.”

Sometimes, teachers have noticed that pupils start to confide in the dogs, telling them about worries they may have that they haven’t told anyone else. This adds another aspect to the programme, encouraging them to get in touch with emotions.

One teacher told us that“(the dogs) are also on hand for children who might feel nervous or anxious during the school day - a few minutes of cuddles can really help to cheer them up.”

The Reading Dogs at Our Lady and St Patrick’s provide comfort, encourage positive social behaviours, enhance self-esteem, motivate speech and inspire young people to have fun.

The children are selected by their teachers as those who would benefit most from this intervention; normally young people who lack confidence, or have difficulty with reading or attention deficit. The teacher takes a baseline reading level as a means for measuring impact at the end of each term.The sessions are led by two teaching assistants and the sessions for each young person are normally no longer than 15 minutes and shorter for younger children. They always start with telling the dogs their news, too. At the end of the session the children have the opportunity to stroke the dog. This is a BIG Reward.

Sarah described how interaction with the dogs is encouraged and understood, for example the teacher may say Millie can’t hear you and would really like to hear this story, can you speak up so Millie can hear?” or Wren doesn’t know that word, can you tell Wren what it means?” and “Why don’t you explain what’s in the picture to Wren?”. They also explain that if the dog falls asleep, she is just closing her eyes so she can concentrate on the story or if she becomes active, she is really enjoying you reading to her so she is a bit excited”.

Having been teaching since 1989, Sarah is proud that she could start such a successful scheme in her own school, and is thrilled at the positive effect on the children’s education.

Posters: ‘Class Rules’ (left) and ‘Class in progress’ (right)
Reading Dogs Rules PosterReading Dogs - In Progress Poster

* Our School Dogs. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2016, from Puppy Gurus - DHK: