“Everyone says they have the best dog in the world, and everyone is right!” Karen tells me about her furry companion, the 2-and-a-half-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Penny. She is clever, affectionate and loves posing for photos. When Penny is not eating, she loves to chase bubbles. The more I learn about this dynamic duo, it is quickly apparent that Penny is one special pooch. “I could see from an early age that Penny had something quite special about her, like an old soul,” Karen recalls. Penny’s calm demeanour and intuition for her human’s needs caused Karen to investigate therapy jobs for her.
When Karen learned about Story Dogs, she was hooked. Karen is also a big reader and acknowledges that reading skills has a big impact on success in life. Story Dogs offer reading sessions for children to read to the dogs without pressure for the children to get it right. The children choose the books that they want to read, sit with the dogs and just enjoy the process. As part of the session, the children are encouraged to speak to the dog and explain what is happening on the page. This allows the child to become the teacher as they help the dog understand, boosting their confidence. “It makes sense that if you enjoy something, you will do it more often and you will get better at it,” Karen explains.
The program is also enriching for Penny, who gets lots of pats from the children and other staff. The children are happy to see Penny as well, and they love reading to her. Even in the few weeks before schools shut down, Karen saw huge improvement in their reading skills and confidence. “During the school closure ‘Penny’ has been writing letters to the children about the things she has been doing, and not doing, during isolation.” This way, the children can see that everyone has been affected because Penny cannot go to the beach or visit her friends either. Penny shows that they are not alone, and they can still have fun at home. “I was really excited when the children wrote back,” Karen says. “It’s been great to maintain a connection with the children with the help of the school, who have been incredibly supportive of the Story Dogs program. I also appreciate Humans in Geelong connecting us with Whittington Primary School.”
As for Karen, she works as an administrative officer, manages a local dog walking group and is now the coordinator for Story Dogs in Geelong. Karen has been working hard growing the program for when restrictions are lifted and Penny can return to school. From one dog team at the beginning of the year, there are now twelve teams trained and ready to go into schools in the Geelong area when permitted. She also has plans to incorporate the Premier’s Reading Challenge into Story Dogs sessions for 2021. Karen has been involved in several community groups over the years, and has been assisting Animal Rescue Cooperative (ARC) delivering donated pet food to people struggling due to COVID-19. “It has been a challenging time for everyone, particularly those who have struggled to put food on the table,” Karen says, “and pets need to eat too.” Karen was drawn to this role as she has previously volunteered with organisations providing food and goods but lacked pet food.
If any dog owners are interested in joining the Story Dogs program, Karen encourages you to look at the information on the website. There is plenty of information available about what is required for both the dog and handler, including behaviour assessments (for the dog) and time commitments (for the human). “If your dog fits the bill and you have the time, email me! email@example.com” Alternatively, you can still support the program by becoming a dog team sponsor. Each dog team needs sponsorship so they can contribute to the education of our children. “It is an investment in our future,” Karen says. While we may not able to accurately assess the impact of the recent school closures, programs like Story Dogs complement the tough jobs of teachers and can help students who may have fallen behind by inspiring a love of reading.
Story Dogs will be participating in our Humans in Geelong Online Expo which Premieres on our YouTube Sunday October 11th, 2020. The full program will be updated on our website. https://humansingeelong.com/humans-in-geelong-online-expo-2020/
Story: Stephanie Downing. Photo: supplied