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Animal magic?

THEY HAVE BEEN MAN’S best friend for thousands of years.

But only now are the benefits of learning with dogs being realised in Welsh classrooms.

Schools in south-west Wales have opened their doors to humble hounds in a bid to raise pupils’ confidence and self-esteem.

The innovative ‘Burns By Your Side’ scheme helps children in a variety of settings to develop their reading and communication skills.

One head teacher has spoken of the ‘calming effect’ it has had on pupils with special educational needs.

The scheme provides targeted pupils with the opportunity to read – on a weekly or fortnightly basis – to a volunteer and their dog, usually in sessions running over the course of a school term.

Typically, a volunteer will spend around 15 minutes with a child on an individual basis and keep a short record of each session.

To date, the scheme has involved a small number of schools (primary, secondary and special) and settings – such as libraries and nurseries – across the south-west Wales region.

An initial study to explore the impact of bringing dogs into classrooms, facilitated by researchers at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) Yr Athrofa – Institute of Education, has unearthed some promising results.

All schools and all children involved have reported favourably on the initiative and teachers have noted that pupils respond positively to the presence of the dogs, look forward to sessions and are keen to take part.

Helen Lewis, Primary PGCE Programme Lead and UWTSD’s Burns By Your Side co-ordinator, said: “The dog is a non-judgemental listener, whose very presence may calm and relax reluctant and anxious readers.

“With well-versed handlers acting to support the reading process, the act of reading to a dog can support children in making meaning of text and can encourage them to express personal responses in a safe environment.

“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.”

Following the success of the reading with dogs pilot study, Burns By Your Side is now working with UWTSD and a greater number of schools in order to undertake a more rigorous body of research.

Organisers are conducting a mixed-methods, systematic review into the impact of reading with dogs on metacognition, attitudes to learning and reading levels in classrooms across South Wales.

In each of the 12 schools currently engaged with the project, four to six children who are struggling to make progress in reading have been identified and receive weekly sessions with the visiting dog and handler.

At the start of the project the children were given baseline assessments, such as standardised reading tests and other measures of attitude towards learning.

A similar group of children who were not in the intervention group were also given the same tests to provide a control measure.

At the end of the intervention, which will have lasted for an academic year, the tests will be repeated and results analysed.

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Jon Coles

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