Viewpoint: Reading Dogs

A struggling reader’s best friend!

During my early years as a teacher I read an anthology called Please Mrs Butler. The poem, “Slow Reader”, written as struggling readers read: “I – am – in – the – slow- read-ers group…” moved me to tears then and still does today. This child’s siblings had found fame in school in the football team or the Christmas play, but this little one’s claim to fame was being in the group for slow readers. The last line, “…I-hate-it”, is the line that goes straight to my heart.

Sadly I believe the situation is the same today as it was thirty years ago. There are always children who find it difficult to become fluent readers – those who for one reason or another struggle to make sense of the black squiggles on white paper while others, who may be the same age or younger, seem to float through the learning-to-read process with enviable ease.

No matter how professional the teacher and no matter how sensitive all may be to the situation, the child still knows that he has difficulty, knows too that you know he has difficulty and often there is no attempt to hide the disdain he holds for books – “I hate reading!” Of course he hates it.

This isn’t an unusual state of affairs and one school librarians face every day. Our boundless enthusiasm and never ending attempts to find the right book to casually present at exactly the right moment – the one that may prove to be the book that ‘wasn’t bad’ or better still the one that would prompt the magic words “this was OK – do you have another one like this one?”

It doesn’t always work, in fact more often than not it doesn’t. Many times we find the pile of carefully selected titles so eagerly handed over to a child so that he has a little pile to choose from, hidden under a cushion on the sofa. Not a single one had appealed. Not one. The child had left the library bookless. I should have known… he hates reading.

Photo: Susanna HagmanIt is however not about hate but love – the special kind of love that we who work with children long to instill in our young charges and the devotional kind that dogs do best. I am however not speaking of reading dogs in general – I am thinking of our reading dog Alma who has been a loved colleague at Ytternäs School in Mariehamn on Åland for the past five years.

Alma, a pumi, and her mistress Yrsa Finne are very important cogs in our learning-to-read-wheel. They are the ones who make it fun for the very children who had previously had it so tough. The ones who hate books and despise the very thought of reading aloud in front of anyone else.

Dear colleagues: I need a dog!

As with so many other great discoveries throughout history my discovery of the wonders of a reading dog happened by accident during a visit to the Sello library in Espoo, Finland, in 2011. Sello, a municipal library was at that time home to now famous Börje whom together with his mistress Raisa Alameri held regular Reading Dog sessions with enormous success, for both children and adults.

I needed a dog in our school and it proved to be surprisingly easy to organize. First of all I sat on the boat from Helsinki to Mariehamn and sent a plea to my colleagues “I need a dog”! Within a very short space of time I had a likely candidate.

It is important to remember that it is not only a dog that is coming into the school it is also an adult – master or mistress of this said dog – and it is very important that this person is also suited to a school environment and all that it involves.

Yrsa brought Alma for the job interview with our Principal in January 2012. From the beginning Alma did her internship with us with a vest that said Trainee before she graduated later that year and could proudly wear a Reading Dog vest.

I have been asked many times, particularly by my Swedish colleagues, how it is possible to have a dog in a school? “Don’t you have any allergies?” “Aren’t any of your pupils afraid of dogs?” These are of course important and highly relevant questions and not ones that can be ignored.

Parents/guardians were informed of our plans and our health sister was brought into the discussions to check the allergy situation. As it happens – so far at least – we haven’t had children or staff members who are allergic.

We have however had children who are very nervous around dogs and this we treat with the utmost respect. No one is ever forced to read to Alma nor need they go alone. It can take two or three visits with Alma before everyone – Alma included – is happy and relaxed. A nervous child does not read well and Alma is extremely astute in picking up negative vibrations and it can take a while for everyone to settle.

Yrsa’s patience with these little ones is vital. She is responsible for Alma’s behaviour and, as the only adult in the room; she is also responsible for the readers. The whole experience must be a positive one and the success of the venture is based upon the reluctant reader building a relationship with Alma and vice-versa. It is built on mutual trust and affection and this takes time and cannot be hurried.

“It is fun to read to Alma” 

This is what it is all about. It isn’t fun to read to someone who corrects, offers unasked for help or gives the slightest indication that “you’re not very good at this”. At its very worst it can even go back generations when the reading assistant has listened to these children’s parents or elder siblings. “Your father couldn’t read well either” is a tough one and creates an insurmountable barrier for a reader to overcome. Assistants are, after all, only human.

It is common that struggling readers choose books that are too difficult for them. Yrsa manages to get around this by gently saying “Alma is having difficulty understanding this book. Do you think you could choose a book with shorter sentences so she is able to follow?” Simple, necessary and unbelievably effective!

Alma never corrects a mispronunciation or a missed word but Yrsa can say something along the lines of “how well you pronounced” such and such a word, thereby allowing the child to hear it correctly. Alma’s tail is the key to success here. A stroke or a scratch behind the ear produces a wag of the tail and this, for the reader, is all it takes to make it possible to believe that I have read well and that Alma enjoyed it. Once one believes that it is possible to read well the battle is almost won. “I can and therefore I will”.

Love and common sense

The direct opposite to “I can’t therefore I won’t”. Once you are reading aloud the improvement is often fast and dramatic. Children start practicing at home by reading to their toy dog, cat or to their gerbil or rabbit. The reading aloud at home gives confidence and the wagging tail does the rest. It isn’t magic. It is love and plain common sense. Take away the stress and the anxiety of reading aloud, make it fun, the child reads more and we’re there.

“I’m just going to read to Alma” shouts one little boy with a book held high, “she wants to know how the story ends and she wants me to read it”. I am fairly sure that he’s right. Alma does want to hear the end! They settle on the sofa, the story continues with Almas head on his lap and the tail starts to wag!

School librarian Ytternäs school Mariehamn, Finland.