15 Apr 2016

Why reading to dogs isn't barking mad

9:27 am on 15 April 2016

In a quiet corner of South Library in the Christchurch suburb of Beckenham, a small girl is quietly reading aloud a book about hot dogs - to a dog.

Six-year-old Zara Pretorius is taking part in the Christchurch City Council's Reading to Dogs project.

Her audience today is Poppy, one of six dogs who do the rounds of Papanui, Shirley and South Library three afternoons a week.

Theo de Heer, 8, reading to Poppy at the South Library in Christchurch.

Theo de Heer, 8, reading to Poppy at the South Library in Christchurch. Photo: RNZ/ Rachel Graham

The programme has been operating at Christchurch libraries since January last year. The 15 minute sessions are free and run throughout the school terms.

Papanui Library team leader Wendy McKay said some children found reading aloud stressful.

Children may find it difficult to read in front of a class room, or even their parents, who might be well meaning but focus on correcting them and making sure they get everything right, Ms McKay said.

Zara,6, reads to Poppy the dog, while her sister Mila, 4, pats her.

Zara,6, reads to Poppy the dog, while her sister Mila, 4, pats her. Photo: RNZ/ Rachel Graham

"What (the dogs) do is provide a really sort of lovely non-judgemental, relaxing environment to be able to read to," said Ms McKay.

"You generally find the children cuddle up, sometimes you see them absentmindedly stroking the dog, and it's just a really comforting but fun environment."

Eight-year-old Theo de Heer, who has a genetic disorder called Nager's syndrome, is a regular visitor to the Reading to Dogs sessions.

Theo's condition affects his voice, and his after school carer Rebekah Mauchline said reading to dogs allowed Theo to use his voice without being judged, or misunderstood.

"He can use (his voice) as loud or quiet as he wants to, and it helps him work on his pronunciation of words. And he just loves the dog."

While Theo is reading to Poppy and stroking her belly, contented groans can rumble from the dog's stomach.

During the sessions the dogs are supervised by a member of the Christchurch City Council Animal Control unit.

Many of the dogs belong to members of the unit and have been carefully selected for the reading sessions based on their temperament.

Kym Parnham, an animal control education co-ordinator with the council, said they wanted to ensure the sessions were positive for both the dogs and the children.

The sessions also provided a good opportunity to talk to children about the best way to interact with dogs.

"Some of the children have not owned a dog or had a dog in their family and they need to know how to act around a dog. How to act calmly, quietly, not jumping around, standing on toes, or pulling on ears."

It was also beneficial for children that have no confidence with dogs, or who have had a bad experience with a dog, Ms Parnham said.

"They are going to come across a dog that is calm, laid back and in a restful state, and that can help give them confidence around dogs."

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