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Meet Honey, The Very Good Dog Helping Australian Students Learn How To Read

Never work with children or animals, except if you are undertaking the Story Dog Program and then it is the perfect combination.

This is definitely for four-year-old Golden Retriever, Honey, her owner, Jacqui Macmillan, and a group of Year Two students from Buninyong Primary School who spend a weekly 20 minute session reading to the always attentively listening pooch.

Inside a quiet area of the school ground, such as the library or outside the classroom, a student will sit one-on-one with Honey -- reading a book they have chosen from a selection that suits their individual reading level, as a part of The Story Dog program.

The initiative is based on the successful American literacy program, Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.), which launched in 1999. It’s a comprehensive literacy program built around the idea of children and young adolescents reading to dogs; aiming to make reading fun for children so they become lifelong readers.

Honey helps children learn how to read and loves listening to stories. Image: Supplied

Buninyong Primary School began offering The Story Dog Program in 2019, after parent and Story Dog Facilitator, Jacqui, approached the school along with Honey to offer their services.

“The whole idea of bringing pets into the classroom to assist learning is something schools have been doing for a long time. But it has mostly been about learning responsibility and organisation,” Assistant Principal, Dave Young, told 10 daily.

Having Honey and Jacqui involved in the reading program has shifted the focus so pets can be used to lower anxiety and stress of students when they are asked to read.

"Sharing a book with a dog removes the fear of judgement and provides a platform or purpose for the student practise their reading.”

The children who take part in the Story Dog Program are selected by their teachers based on a variety of factors, including: a lack of confidence, difficulty with English, short attention spans, reading scores that are below average for their age and grade and sometimes even as a reward, for good behaviour or effort in the classroom.

Due to the program’s nature, children who get to be involved perceive it as more like a reward than a remedial program, so they feel special rather than being selected or singled out because of their inadequacies.

Jacqui with her dog Honey and students Olivia and Jake. Image: Supplied

“It is a non-judgmental setting so the children's focus improves, their literacy skills increase and their confidence soars. The accepting, loving nature of dogs gives this program its magic and helps children relax, open up, try harder and have fun while reading to a friendly, calm dog," Jacqui said.

"Story Dogs does not assess the children in any way, as the sessions are designed to be as fun and non-threatening as possible."

The students who took part in Buninyong Primary School’s Story Dog Program in 2019 not only loved the process but also witnessed their reading improve and began to enjoy reading more.

Now in Year Three, student Olivia said: “It was fun reading to Honey. I read to her about six or seven times and read my first ever chapter book to her. She is a great listener.”

Olivia and Jake said Honey helped them both improve their reading. Image: Supplied

Another student, Jake said that before he began reading to Honey, he didn’t enjoy reading and that he didn’t believe he was very good at it. But his opinion has now changed.

“Reading is easier now. I want to read more,” he said.

Honey loves expression in your voice. She stands up and wags her tail when she hears it. I learnt that expression is important when reading.

Jacqui said that watching all the students but particularly Jake, improve from taking part in the program was very rewarding.

“Our most heart-warming moment came during our last session at school for 2019 when one of our children wanted to read a story to his whole class," she told 10 daily.

"He sat up the front of the class confidently with Honey by his side and read the whole story. Honey and I were bursting with pride!”

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But not all stories are welcomed by Honey.

“She hid under a pile of blankets when a crocodile story was read,” laughed Jacqui. “I don’t think she liked that one very much.”

The Story Dogs Program is a charity organisation operated by volunteer teams to help over 2,485 children across Australia, each week. It is available to all primary schools both government or private, at no cost to the school or participating students.

Featured image: Supplied