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'Actually wonderful': Dude the Maltese-cross helps teach Oscar joy of reading

Story Dogs at Woden Library | August 10, 2022 | Canberra Times

With Dude the Maltese-cross snuggled next to him, sometimes the little dog resting on his knee, eight-year-old Oscar Baguley is confidently reading a chapter book in a quiet corner of the Woden Library.

Reading was something he once didn't enjoy. But that was before he joined the Story Dogs program in which reluctant readers settle in and read to a dog. And, before they know it, are flying through the pages and actually enjoying the process.

Dude the Maltese-cross listens to Oscar Baguley, 8, reading at the Woden Library as part of the Story Dogs program. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"It's actually wonderful to witness," Canberra volunteer Tricia Wilden, owner of Dude, said.

"They love the interaction with the dog. It just calms them down and it gives them confidence somehow.

"They're reading to the dog, not you. So they find within themselves just a wonderful relationship with the dog and that helps them with their reading.

"And that allows me to just help as they need it, as they go along, but it's really about confidence. It just changes their confidence and [reading becomes] a joy, not a task."

Oscar used to be a reluctant reader but now loves reading chapter books. Pictures: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Story Dogs was started by two mums in Murwillumbah in northern NSW in 2009. It's now across Australia including some schools in Canberra as well as the Dickson, Belconnen and Woden libraries. There are 13 dog teams in Canberra, with four more being trained. Other schools are on the waiting list for the free program.

Oscar's mum Kerry said he had previously been a reluctant reader who loved being read to, rather than reading himself.

"So this was a good way for him to get into some more structured reading. He loves animals so it just seemed like a perfect fit for him," Mrs Baguley said.

"It's gotten him into chapter books, that he hasn't really been prepared to read before. It's also given him encouragement to read at home more. Tricia gives him homework that he has to do every week and comes back and tells her the story and what he's read in the week.

"It's been wonderful. He loves coming here."

Dude is owned by Story Dogs volunteer Tricia Wilden who sits beside Oscar and helps him as he needs it. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Oscar, a year two student at Duffy Primary, is thriving, now looking always for the next series of books to start.

"I used to not really like reading at all. But I really like dogs so it just made me suddenly like reading," he said.

"And it's nice to have someone actually listen to it. And he's adorable, nice to have next to me. Like, just look at him!"

Oscar said he'd gone through all the school reader levels.

"And then I started my first chapter book, it was a Zac Power book, about a giant robot dinosaur," he said.

"And when I finished that, I went on to The Dinosaur Club the T-Rex Attack. It was the first Dinosaur Club book that I've ever gotten and my friend gave it to me as a birthday present and it's also written by the same people as Dinosaur Cove. So I think when I finish this, I should move on to the Dinosaur Cove books. My brother says that they're decently easy."

Tricia Wilden signed up for training with Story Dogs as a volunteer with a neighbour of hers, who now takes her greyhound into schools for reading sessions.

"One of the wonderful things about Story Dogs is that it encourages the kids to engage with books, not just about the reading but the stories," she said.

"So, all the books are used, images, illustrations, rhyme, lots of different ways of engaging the kids in the story. So they get engaged in the story and they want to know the rest of the story.

"It's not really just about reading, it's about learning to love stories and books as a medium for sharing those stories."

Story Dogs founder Janine Sigley said it received no government funding and relied on sponsorship, fundraising and donations. The charity is having its first giving day on August 26.

Donations can be made here.

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