By: Simon Collins

Holly, the dog, just listens. She doesn’t laugh at the 8-year-old if he makes a mistake.

Before Holly arrived, teacher Lisa Cochrane says, Thomas was anxious about reading – “a reluctance to engage, tears, frustration”.

“He had a sense that he was not achieving at the same level as others,” explains his principal, Andrew Ducat.

Cole Subritzy-Shandley reads with DOGabled founder Heather Summers and her dog Django. Photo / Dean Purcell (Image NZ HERALD)

A few months of reading to Holly have changed that.

“Thomas has just gone back to class and asked to read to peers,” said Cochrane.

“He is engaging in his reading group, and he is willing. He said, ‘I’m not very good with these names but I’ll give it a go.’ The ability to take a risk and try is a new thing for him.”

Thomas, a Year 3 student at Konini School at the foot of the Waitakere Ranges in West Auckland, is one of the first children involved in a new charity called DOGabled – not disabled, but enabled by a dog.

Cole Subritzy-Shandley, 7, has normal intelligence but takes longer than other kids to articulate words because he has cerebral palsy. That is no problem when his audience is Django, the dog.

“This year he is reading above where his peer group is,” said Cochrane. “That’s progress, huge leaps and bounds.”

DOGabled founder Heather Summers said the key is that a dog, unlike a teacher or other children, is “non-judgmental”.

“There is no actual major focus on correcting a child, it’s more about promoting their confidence,” she said.

“So the child will read out loud to the dog. If they ask the dog-handler for help, the handler will help, but the way it works is if they get it wrong, so be it. And their confidence grows, and then they enjoy reading.

Thomas Preston has overcome his fear of reading by reading to a dog, Holly. Photo / Dean Purcell (Image: NZ HERALD)

“For a lot of children on the autism spectrum or with dyslexia, the normal tools don’t necessarily work, so we are looking to the dog to help unlock some different things, depending on the child.

“We don’t focus on the impediment. We work towards making them feel more confident.”
Cochrane, Konini School’s deputy principal and special needs coordinator, is delighted that the school took a gamble on the idea.

“It could be seen as a bit quirky and a bit odd, but the classroom teachers have really embraced it.”

Ducat said: “There has been tangible evidence to suggest that there have been improvements in reading levels, and there is the soft data around their confidence.

“There is a growing awareness of how anxiety is affecting children at school. It’s something we were not aware of historically, but more parents are letting us know about it, and we do see it with children not willing to try things and reluctant to come to school, particularly kids on the spectrum.

“The reason we are seeing significant gains in these classes is that we have Lisa accessing these resources for us, and we have teachers that are keen as well, so we are setting up a climate which means the children are able to make those gains.”

• DOGabled is recruiting volunteers and works with schools at no charge. Email heather@dogabled.org.nz.

Source: NZ Herald

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