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.
Burns by Your Side, a charity scheme operated by leading natural pet food provider and Kidwelly based firm, Burns Pet Nutrition, currently operates in 50 Welsh schools across Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Neath Port Talbot supported by 53 volunteers and their dogs.
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.
The scheme is already affiliated with the Kennel Club Bark and Read Foundation and in 2016 was selected to be the first UK participant for the US based R.E.A.D association. R.E.A.D has thousands of volunteer teams across the USA working to improve literacy and reading skills.
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.
Odette Nicholas, deputy headteacher at Bury Port Community School, introduced the Burns by Your Side scheme to the school after training to become a volunteer. Commenting on her experiences of witnessing the delivery of the scheme first hand, Odette said: “The difference the scheme makes to the children is unbelievable, they are so relaxed and calm around the dogs that it totally removes the pressure of reading aloud when otherwise it would be a real challenge. My dog Jade equally enjoys spending time with the children and going through the training process with her for the scheme was a great experience.”
Grace Vobe, another 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.”
Burns Pet Nutrition founder, John Burns, commented: “We established our Charitable Foundation to make a difference in the local community, to change lives and support those in need in whatever way possible. Burns by your Side is our flagship project. To see the demand for our reading dogs service increase so quickly is testament to our incredible volunteers and the scheme itself. I would like to encourage any school that would like to trial the scheme to get in touch, and similarly any dog owners that think their pet would make the perfect reading companion.”
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.