Enhancing literacy through Story Dogs.

An interview with Janine Sigley - Co-Founder of Story Dogs.

Enhancing literacy through Story Dogs.

An interview with Janine Sigley - Co-Founder of Story Dogs.



After witnessing first-hand the power of using dogs to make reading more accessible in schools, Angela interviews Janine Sigley, the co-founder of Story Dogs. Story Dogs is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to make reading fun for children so they become confident lifelong readers. In this episode, Angela and Janine talk about the importance of reducing the overwhelm of reading and helping kids approach reading through the lens of fun. The episode also covers ways teachers and parents can help to foster a love of reading, even in the most reluctant reader.

Episode Transcription


Story Dogs: www.storydogs.org.au

Become a volunteer: https://www.storydogs.org.au/how-to-volunteer

Books mentioned:

Graeme Base: http://graemebase.com.au/

Mem Fox: https://memfox.com/

Alison Lester: https://alisonlester.com/



Dogs  read  volunteers  books  kids  children  story  life  people  school  big  podcast  teachers  program  support  jack russell  fun



Angela: Welcome to A Kid's Life Podcast. I'm Angela Lockwood. And for the last 20 years, I have been working in schools, supporting teachers to build inclusive classrooms. Through A Kid's Life Podcast, my goal is to help us, adults, better understand the complexities of life as a kid. My guests and I share stories, reflections, and simple strategies to support kids of all needs as they walk through life. So whether you're looking for inspiration, direction, guidance, tips, or just a laugh, A Kid's Life podcast is the place for you. Enjoy.


Angela: Welcome to A Kid's Life Podcast. I'm Angela Lockwood and I wanted to bring you something today that I was exposed to many years ago through my work in one of my local primary schools. And that was the work of Story Dogs. And Story Dogs is based on a successful American literacy program, which is all about reading education assistance dogs, which I think is very cleverly acronyms by read very well done. It was launched back in 1999, which seems like forever ago in Utah. And it was really a comprehensive literacy program that was built around children and young adults and young adolescents and helped them to be able to read through the support of dogs. Now that sounds a bit strange, maybe for some people, how it doesn't teach your child how to read, but we'll get into that. But it's really funny, I'm going to speak to one of the co-founders Janine Sigley shortly, but it's a 100% volunteer driven program, which really is amazing considering they're in over 300 primary schools across Australia. 

Now for me, it's really quite funny even to be talking about dogs, because I've been known to say I'd rather have a child, another child than have a dog in my life. And like what, it was always a joke that I just don't get why people love dogs. I didn't get dog ownership, I'd go to markets and see all these crazy things for dogs with you know, pearly leads and all this. And I'd be like, Oh my gosh, why would you even bother. So it was something that I knew that dogs were cute, and I was happy to sort of look at them being cute, but to actually own one and have to clean up their poop and do all that sort of stuff. Never interested me. You know, as a kid I was only ever having I would have a goldfish, and a guinea pig. And my goldfish lived in a bowl on top of the speaker in my bedroom. And you know that when we had the big boom boxes, so clearly that died. And then a guinea pig was eaten by a rat. And so my early experiences were quite traumatic, which probably leads to what I never wanted any other pets. But that was until I had a daughter who, since she could speak, always asked if we could have a dog. And I always said no, I will have another child, you will have another brother or sister before we ever get a dog. And her persistence is absolutely impressive. And it took nine years because the first two years of her life she couldn't speak. So it took her nine years to you know get to a point where I sort of crumbled and I welcomed a dog into our lives. 

And that was only this year and it was a little Jack Russell pup, little Buddy and I am going to stand here and say that my not wanting to have a dog my entire life completely changed the minute I saw my little Jack Russell pup look at me. And from that moment on Yes, I've even had portraits done of my family with my little Jack Russell and I adore him and love him so much. So I will put my hand on my heart. I am sorry to all the dog owners I have judged my entire life. I understand. And I can actually say the benefits to your mental well being and your physical well being. Oh my gosh, and just bringing calm into your life by having a dog so this whole story and backstory about why I'm so excited to speak to Janine because I now understand firsthand without judgment why dogs are so important in everybody's life, including my own. I was fortunate a few years ago to see Story Dogs in action in the school, like I said, and it was just amazing to see how children who usually were classified as being quite hyperactive or couldn't read become so calm and just read to beautiful little puppies. So I welcome Janine Sigley to the A Kid’s Life podcast and Janine I am so sorry for giving you a little heart palpitation in the intro when I said I don't understand why people would want dogs. Welcome.


Janine: Good morning, Angela. Yes, it was oh my goodness I thought, am I on the wrong program.


Angela: I should have told you that prior to connecting but I like seeing my podcast go. Yes, Story Dogs just for listeners, can you tell us a little bit about what Story Dogs is? It's pretty self explanatory in its title. But it's so much more powerful than what the title says.


Janine: Our Story Dogs is a reading support program for primary school children. And we take dogs into schools and help children learn to read. But the magic happens with the dog coming into school and the child coming out of the classroom, and sitting one on one for about 20 minutes with the dog and the handler. And changing that environment for the child and having to go at their own pace and just chilling out with a wonderful dog. And a person who's going to listen, without judgment, is where the magic happens. So every child that we see gets to be with that dog every week at the same time, they look forward to those sessions. And they can just relax and go at their own pace, and have some fun with a book. So we let the teachers teach. And we make the sessions fun and interactive with the dog and just being there. The child's self confidence and literacy skills just keep going up and up.


Angela: Hmm, you made a really interesting point there if we can just expand on that a little bit around with no judgment. Now, what do you mean? Can you just expand what you mean by that? Because I don't want to say what I think you're talking about. Because, you know, obviously I work with a whole range of children who can really struggle with their learning. And that judgment piece is really interesting. Can you expand on that?


Janine: Absolutely, it is an interesting part of the whole story. And it's interesting that we often get either supporters of the program or volunteers of the program come to us, because they had such a terrible experience at school. And they can remember standing up in front of the class trying to read because it was their turn, and the teacher said, must read. And they couldn't read. And that fear that was in them, is still with them today, they can go back to that situation so quickly and feel that fear. So what we're trying to do with that program is take the children out of the classroom to start with. So sitting under a tree is so important that environments are important, and the dog, so dogs don't mind if they make a mistake, they don't mind. If the child goes, why don't we read, we'll just pet the dog. And just let the child know that they're important. They're the center of this activity, and to go at their pace, and there's no judgment. So if a child doesn't want to read, or volunteers are trained to go, Okay, let's just read a book together, let's find out about picking the pack or Hairy McClary or, you know what happens at the end of this book, that's what's important. And let's have fun with the characters or let's have a look at the pictures and see what the crazy monkeys are doing on the page or whatever, and have a conversation around that instead of trying to decode every single word, and get bogged down in that, let's just make it fun. And it doesn't matter if you can't, because you'll get there. 


Angela: And there's no judgement, that sounds so, so beautiful and calming for a child. And you mean it when you said about fear. I know I see children who really struggle with even just standing in front of a group of their peers, of their classmates or, you know, I think kids really know when they're not, you know, proficient readers. And so they don't, that you can see the anxiety and the apprehension to share and to read and to stand up like, you know, I speak at conferences all the time. And a lot of people, how do you do that? You know how do you that I'm so scared of speaking in front of people. And I often see children who need to stand up and read a passage, they're feeling the same fear like you know, an adult wouldn't be forced up on stage and say, just go for it. You do your preparation and all that. So I see fear all the time in kids. And I think that's really important, a really important point. So you've really talked about judgment and fear, which are pretty, pretty big emotions and concepts, aren't they?


Janine: Yeah, absolutely. And wanting to do it and an activity. So when we talk to teachers about the benefits of the program, the feedback that we get is that the attitude of the children changes. So we take a child that's a reluctant, reluctant learner, because they're fearful. They know that they're lagging behind or it's so harmful. And we take those reluctant readers, and we then change their attitudes towards reading because we make fun. They want to count so they look forward to something at school, and all of a sudden their participation in class increases, their willingness to learn increases, and if you've got a child, that one sky's the limit really? It just changes the ballpark.


Angela: And what part does these gorgeous little puppies have and I can't even believe those words just came out of that. 12 months ago, I might not have said that I did. Puppies are gorgeous. What role did they have to play? And we talked, you talked about no judgment. But yeah. What is it about dogs? What is it?


Janine: Yeah, a good question. Because I have people who come to our program, who say, Oh, look, I've been volunteering at my local school for years. Now I go to waiting, reading groups and what have you, I know how to do it. Oh, it's all good. You know, I'm experiencing them. So yeah, that's cool. And then you talk to them, let them get them into the program, and they do the program with their dog, and they come back. And that was so different. That was so different. The dog makes all the difference. So it's a calming effect. It's a focus. So we get a lot of children that have short attention spans looking everywhere. And we just say, look, just stroke the dog. And they can focus, they can sit still, for 20 minutes because of the dog. And we bring it back through the dog we go to, you know, rover, rover is not running around. This is a time when robots are just sitting and this is their activity. Now we sit, we'll be here for 20 minutes or so. So we need to just sit down. And the kids, sometimes the teachers say, you know, little Johnny, he's a he's a handful you watch him, and we get them into our programming model and they just thrive. They just we never have hardly any behavioral problems, because they want to be there. And the dog is the magnet. It's just that relationship with the dog. So the people who volunteer with us, they almost don't exist, they don't have a name at school, or the kids call out. 


Angela: That's what I feel like in my family nowadays that I'm like, I'm here so it's not all about funny. Speak about the volunteers, what sort of backgrounds have volunteers guide you they you know, what leads them to be a volunteer?


Janine: Yeah, we have amazing volunteers who come from all walks of life, life, mostly women, retired people, a great number of our volunteers, but also women with children at school, and they see the value of perhaps load up their own kids, they're teaching their grandkids to read, and they've got that time about a dog. And so they come to us, but lots of professional people know the benefit of reading, you know, the most in it the whole life, know that if you have an education, get ahead and do the things that you want to do in life. So they see the value of that. And our volunteers are really amazing, because it's a big commitment once a week, for two to three hours is a big commitment for volunteers. We have lots and lots of wonderful volunteers.


Angela: So what sort of training process, I'm going to go to humans here, what sort of training programs are involved for the volunteers, and also for the dogs. Imagine, I'm thinking of my little Buddy, if he went into a school, he would just be like a little energizer thing that would be jumping everywhere. And like so many people here. First of all, let's have a chat about dogs. How do you choose the type of dog? Is there a temperament that's ideal? And what process do they go through?


Janine: Sure, yeah, we do put them through an accreditation process. And it is all about temperament. So adults are not therapy dogs in that they haven't gone through months and months and months and months of training. However, they have dogs that can jump to this well and socialize the good around kids, we have an external dog behaviorist fit, come in and do the assessment. For us. It's a 10 point assessment looking at walking out on loosely, being happy to be petted, and happy to have kids you know, have them or whatever, we don't encourage that. But it happens of course, and that they're happy in a busy environment with crazy noises and bells going off things like that. The welfare of the dog is really important. So they have to be happy in the situation and not stressed but mostly their backyard dogs that are really well behaved, gentle, and can go through that tip chest that we put in through.


Angela: Yeah, I just want to ask, do you often get ex police dogs at all?


Janine: Yeah, we get field guide dogs quite a lot because the test is so rigorous. And if there's any health issues, we've had a couple little heart murmurs and so they're not suitable for guide dogs. They're perfect story dogs because they can come into a school, lay down and listen to a book. It’s easy for us. It's really good. We take all the dogs as well so therapy dogs, the age upper age limit is 10 will take notes as long as the bit is happy that they're, they're happy and they will Facebook thereafter will take them up to you know, whenever they however old they are so many older dogs that can't do other therapy things come and be startups.


Angela: So we will get to the other part of the Story Dogs, which are the humans. But I'm intrigued. I know your background is really different to what dogs do. So environmental management, is that right? How did you find your way into this world? The world of story dogs?


Janine: Yeah, so I did have an environmental science background. And part of that environmental work is working with volunteers. So I was looking after waterway creek health, and I was having the help of volunteers measuring water quality. So it was doing that on the Gold Coast in Queensland and had lots and lots of volunteers. And I've been managing volunteers for 10 years or so. So I sort of knew that world. And then one day, my daughter, she was a teen. I think she wasn't, she said, I really want to volunteer with animals. I want to work with animals. So we hopped on Google, as you do, and you put in volunteers and animals in the re program. And she described and I went Oh, wow. And I was only working three days a week at that station. Well, you know, we could do this and I contacted Leah Sheldon. He's also in Murwillumbah and said, what we do?'' and she knew I was a dog lover. She had a big Ridgeback Simba, who became our first ever story dog. And she went, Oh, yeah, let's do it. And I just knew that the synergy of growing up with dogs, our kids were surrounded by books. So literacy is important to us. During university degrees, I knew that literacy was important. And just seeing the two together, I just went of course. And that's actually a habit, we bring it to Australia, and let's, let's do, why not, okay, let's do it. So I knew the volunteer side of it, I could manage, even though perhaps it was a different space, but I knew that I could manage that side of it. And I was confident in that part of it. So that's sort of what I flipped to a generic story.


Angela: I know my work in schools as an occupational therapist, I work a lot with children with sensory needs. So they might be children who are very, hyper aroused by their environment, or they find certain things in their environment, or social interactions, or anticipation of, you know, stressful events and things like that. Really hard. And I know some of the equipment, there are a few tools that we use are things to, obviously help them calm. And actually speaking, I just keep thinking about how often I know, now I sit with my puppy if I'm feeling overwhelmed, and I'll just stroke him or I'll actually go out to him and go into a space and just, you know, give him a little cuddle. So I can really see a therapeutic benefit from just sitting petting a dog. So it distracts you from the overwhelm that you might be feeling at the time. And yes, yeah, I think that's where I know I'm really excited by the work that story dogs do because of that calming element for kids. And it's imagine it's like a little pressing pause moment for them. Because sometimes those days can be very stressful. And it just gives them that moment to breathe and just be with another being.


Janine: Absolutely catch their breath and no, have no pressure to be doing anything, you know, just like look at the book if they want but yet stroking that, that wonderful dog, and being involved in that dog, and we also get them to interact with the dog, you know, do a trick or cue the dog to do something. So, you know, it gives them another skill. One of our volunteers very cleverly, had a child that wasn't engaging in books, or books, or whatever. So what he did was he wrote out the steps to teach the dog a trick. And the boy then had to read the instructions, comprehend the instructions and carry out instructions. And he was selling yet in this little reading task and middle tasks because it was dog centered. And he was getting, I think, was Molly getting Molly to do another trick? You know, it was a fantastic way to engage the child, they don't realize that you're engaging in reading, and it just worked so beautifully because of the dog.


Angela: So what type of dogs have you got so what you know what, what sort of sorts?


Janine: Yeah, I mean, mostly there are a lot of Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Poodles. But we do have all sorts of dogs and Great Danes. We've got not too many working dogs. That's probably the one breed of Kelpies and Border Collies that they'd prefer to be running and jumping in.


Angela: And I'm sure Jack Russell


Janine: It can be pretty high energy.


Angela: They are. He is very high energy, right? So that's what I'm thinking, oh my goodness, I couldn't imagine but he's quite chilled at the same time. But yeah, okay, so there's a whole range. Now, obviously the dogs, do the dogs come with the volunteers?


Janine: Yeah, 99% of the time. Yes, that's the case with volunteers who have their own dogs. And they come with them. Yes.


Angela: Now let's talk about humans. Let's talk about the humans that are involved. How do they become involved in Story Dogs? You know, what's the process? If anyone's listening in, I love dogs. I love the sound of this. I know the benefits. How do they get there? 


Janine: Yeah, yeah, so jump on our website, we have a volunteer information pack. So it's www.storydogs.org.au. On the website, just have a look at what's involved, really, it's having the time. So you need about a couple of hours, one day a week, and having a suitable dog. And being in a place where we already have a program set up, or you're willing to set it up in your area. So and then we guide you through the steps, we'll meet you and your dog will put you through the dog team assessment, we'll do what we call the people training that's without your dog. It's a half day course. We show a video that will put you into school and let you see an experienced volunteer sitting with an experienced volunteer to get a feel of how it actually works. And we'll support you throughout the whole process.


Angela: Did I read correctly? You're in over 300 schools across Australia?


Janine: Absolutely. It's just that the demand is huge. And it will get more so now with the learning disruptions with COVID. Kids need it even more. So yeah, the demand is huge. And yes, we've got over 500 volunteers.


Angela: It’s over 500 volunteers in over 300 schools now. You're a volunteer organization. Is that right?


Janine: That's right. Yes. Yeah.


Angela: So Janine, how do you do it? You know, people say don't work with children or dogs. And you're like doing both as well as adults. So how do you do it?


Janine: We did have two paid the employees, myself, and another wonderful lady Katherine. But we do it through generous funding. So we have lots of sponsors, one of our main sponsors is our platinum sponsor Just For Pets, and they've come on board earlier this year, being an amazing help. So that donations and dog sponsorships is how we make the pages keep turning. But as for any charity, it's always a struggle, and we just continue, you know, just keep working at it, working at it in our local communities, or just sort of wonderful. So they're very, very supportive. The schools also chip in. So although it's free for any primary school students in Australia, we do ask the school to have a little fundraising day and contribute that way. So yeah, it's always a struggle, the funding side of it.


Angela: Which really, I know, I know, not for profit land and charities, you know, it always feels like you're asking for, you know, support. But what a worthwhile cause when you've got little kids who and we all know, we know, the importance of reading, you know, I know, for me, when I was younger, I was always in those, you know, reading challenges, and I loved sitting at home and just reading a book, but it was something I, my parents instilled in me from when I was really little, I can't remember and, you know, never reading a book, really. And now I've hopefully instilled that in my children who just loved to read. But so for me, it's interesting, I don't understand why you wouldn't instill a love of reading when you know the benefits of reading. But for some kids, it is really hard. You know, they're, they've got the, you know, some of them just need that little bit of support, don't they just look at reading a little bit differently?


Janine: Yeah, and they don't, some of the students and children we see, don't have support at home. So in our world, our homes are full of books, and we encourage it in some children's world. That's not the case. And they don't get rich every evening or they struggle to read. So what our program also does is if they have a pet home, we encourage them to reach their pet. So some students we've been told by the teachers, they say, Oh, I went home and I practiced with my pet rabbits so that I could read really well to my buddy when he comes next week.


Angela: That's amazing, because it's giving them a skill they can do at home. It's no, that's so beautiful. And I having witnessed it myself, I just I've seen it in action, which is it is so powerful, and I think that's what schools if anyone's listening to this podcast and you’re teacher, which is a lot of my audience, if it's something that you go, I wonder if it would work. It works. You don't need to wonder sorry, you've got some pretty big supporters too. I saw that Graeme Base is one of the acclaimed Australian authors and one of the big supporters and I know, of course he's you know, he's written so many books, but the one that really stands out for me with him is Animalia. Yes. And it's like the most unbelievably illustrated book, but that was my son's favorite book. Yes. Growing up, I think I've read that a gazillion upbringing. How did that come about? That's a pretty big name to get support.


Janine: Well, it was interesting. We were at a story fest at Somerset College on the Gold Coast. And he was one of the authors. And we have a marquee with dogs everywhere. And he was drawn to us so he couldn't resist coming over and giving adults a bit of a patent. I went Oh, wow. So we connected instantly. And it was yeah, it was lovely to meet him and have his support is really good. Because you're right, our family grew up on Animalia as well. And it's a great introductory book. We could use it in our program just to go all out. Let's look at the pictures. Look what all these see with skip the crayfish and you know, all of them without knowing that reading is a chore it becomes fun finding. So we use all sorts of books in that regard.


Angela: Yeah. In regards to the books, do you need or do you seek donations for books? Or how do you come across your resources?


Janine: Yep. So one of our partners that we get our books through is Timex Children's Charities so they give us a 50% discount on our books, which is just wonderful. Because we do have specialized books, we choose specific authors that we really know from books. They're colorful, interesting things, great to read together. They're not an orange school reader. Sorry, teachers. 


Angela: Well, let's face it, I have to admit, I look at a lot of writers in schools and as I'm not a teacher, but I'm an occupational therapist, and I look at some of them. I'm thinking, half the kids wouldn't even know what some of these things are in here, or like to have an old phone or a fax machine. And I'm like, kids are going to be like, what is that?


Janine: Yeah, absolutely. So, so we really like crazy books, Alpacas with miraculous pig the park, you know, AlisonLester, Mem Fox, you know, they're the staples of our program and we take books in and we also use the library at school or if a student has particular topic that we find out about we go Great, well, let's go find a book on motorbikes. If that's what you like, you know, let's try and spark your interest with something that you're interested in.


Angela: So if Alison Lester or Mem Fox are listening to this, we are open. Just a little byline, if any of those authors just mentioned by Janine are happy to support contact us today. Janine it's such a delight to be able to talk to you about the work of Story Dogs, but also your passion is just so, so tangible. What's in store for Story Dogs, what, what is your vision? Because it's so big right now? What's that?


Janine: Yes, but there's, there's 350 odd primary schools, but there's 6000 primary schools in Australia. So our big, audacious hairy goal here is to be in all primary schools. But one of our short term goals is also to be helping 5000 children learn to read every week. So we're at about 2600 children now. So we'd love to step up to that, that 5000 nice, big round of goal, you know, to, to be helping as many kids as we can.


Angela: So lead by two people and a team of volunteers, you're servicing two and a half 1000 plus children every single week.


Janine: That's what we do have a team of leaders who are also volunteers, but we call them our coordinators. And so there's 60 of them that are around the countryside, supporting our dog teams and they are just amazing people, they go over and beyond every week so our coordinators, a wonderful, wonderful people. So it's not just me and it's a huge, huge thing. And it's great fun to be involved in.


Angela: Well I love I love this because I never realized you were that big and you know I just look at go you know, we see in schools this is beautiful little puppy in a volunteer that's talking to a child but they impact the ripple effect of the work that you're doing it story is huge. So I just thank you so so much for doing it and supporting the kids at where they need to be supported. You know, in a fun way because I think so much we're seeing kids' anxiety is increasing. We're seeing that feeling like you said about you know, stepping out of their comfort zone. You know, a lot of kids are fearful of making mistakes. And I couldn't imagine life without reading and being able to love reading and you know, falling asleep at night with a book in my hand is nothing more joyful than that and you know, sitting side by side with the chart and reading a book. So absolutely, yes, Janine, you've got me hooked, dog and book. Thank you so much for being on A Kid's Life podcast and just for doing the work that you're doing with our little kids, it's really important. And for parents, before we finish up, who are listening to this, what can they do at home to support learning, you know how to read or making reading fun at home? What can they do for their own children at home?


Janine: Absolutely. Just surround yourself with books. So even if your child can't read, that's okay. Just share a book absolutely shareable every day. And get them to choose, have lots of books, get them to choose, take them to the library every day and go, well, let's get samples and take them and if they choose, they only read two of those. It's great. Take the other ones back and change. But just keep going, just keep sharing books, sharing, sharing books, and they will have a huge start. If they're not at school. They will have a huge start when they do get to school. But yeah, just shareable every single day.


Angela: It's such a simple message, isn't it? But so powerful, makes such a difference. Well, thank you Janine. Thanks so much. 

So you've been joined today, listeners by Janine Sigley. She's the co-founder of Story Dogs here in Australia, and we're just so thankful for your time. Now for anybody who is wanting to get involved as a volunteer or even to donate or even as an ambassador for any of the listeners that are here. I will link below this episode on the podcast we will link to Story Dogs and all the relevant pages. And we might even put a little video up there of Janine of the Story Dogs in action that we see on your website in beautiful real life examples there on the Story Dogs website as well. So www.storydogs.org.au, but it is all linked below under this episode, but you've been listening to A Kid's Life podcast and instantly thank you so much for being our guest today.


Janine: Thank you, Angela. Thanks for the opportunity. Take care.


Angela: Thank you. Thank you for listening to A Kid's Life podcast. To stay up to date with all new episodes, please subscribe on Spotify, Apple podcasts and Google podcasts. If you want to know more about The Inclusive Classroom or any of the other programs I provide, please go to www.angelalockwood.com.au. And until next time, slow down. Have fun and enjoy.