Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Not Just Another Pretty Face

by Dale Ho

There are many really great literacy programs available to us today and with so many choices, choosing just one can become quite overwhelming. Some things you may want to take into account before making your decision include: Considering the needs of your child and your family. What is your child's learning style? Do they need an environment that fosters creativity? Do they need individual attention? Is there a cost to the program? The location and more.

The SJA Therapy Dogs "Paws 4 Reading" Program
This week I choose to highlight what is one of my favourite literacy programs to date, the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog "Paws 4 Stories" reading program.  It's what I consider to be the perfect pairing!

Leslie Jack is the provincial therapy dog advisor for Ontario at SJA, she shares a bit more about the program.

"The "Paw 4 Stories" program is a one-on-one reading program where young readers practice their skills while reading to a Therapy Dog. In the schools it most commonly takes place once a week with the same dog and handler, although library programs can see different children take part weekly depending on how the library schedules the clients.  The handler is always holding the leash and usually sits on one side of the dog while the child is on the other side of the dog. They most often both sit on a soft blanket or pillow, with the dog lying between them, although children are encouraged to "get comfortable" and make sure the dog can see the book and all the pictures!  Sometimes you will see a child on their tummy, propped up on their elbows happily reading with their head right beside the dog's head!  The child is prompted to read to the dog while the handler gently supports the reader "through the dog"  For example, the handler never directly "corrects" the child but will ask the child to "sound out or repeat a difficult word so Rover will understand it"  or they are asked to describe the pictures to the dog and point out details that the dog might enjoy.  If the dog closes her eyes, the child is told that the dog is enjoying the story so much, that she is closing her eyes to imagine what is happening!   We usually schedule time with each child for between twenty to thirty minutes, but that is not all spent on reading.  We always leave time for the child to tell the handler and dog about their week and to become "reacquainted" with the dog and handler and then after the reading session to have a some time to chat about the book they are reading, cuddle the dog and say good-bye to the team.  Our program offers no expectations for reading improvement.  It is designed to give the young reader the opportunity to read aloud in a safe, non-judgemental environment to a dog that does not care if they struggle with pronunciation, stutter or hesitate.  This dog is just happy to lay beside them and enjoy their time together. With that being said, we often see huge improvements in reading skills, self esteem and confidence and it is wonderful to see a shy, introverted child become a self-assured, happy reader, who loves books." 

Who is the program designed for?

The SJA Therapy Dogs "Paws 4 Reading" Program
"The program is designed for elementary school children from the ages of six to 10 years old, but older children and young people with special needs certainly are considered.  These children often have challenges with reading, struggle to read aloud and can have low-self esteem or suffer from shyness and lack of confidence.  They may have situations at home where the environment is not supportive to practicing reading or are falling behind in the classroom because of  weak reading skills.  Sometimes it only take a few sessions to get a child child over the fear of reading in front of their peers and other times it take a full school year for a child to feel good about their reading skills.  Every situation is different and each child is allowed to progress at their own rate."  

How can one bring a program like this into their school or facility?

"Call your local St. John Ambulance.  Contact information for every branch across Canada can be found on our website at  In Ontario we have 50 Therapy Dog Divisions and we are trying hard to keep up with the demands of this wonderful program.  Although there is sometimes a waiting period, we do our very best to answer the needs of our community and share our Therapy Dogs with everyone who needs them."

Everyday we see the benefits of incorporating programs such as these into the community in order to reach the diverse needs of our children, how can we support them?

"If you have a dog who loves people, is friendly and outgoing, enjoys new situations and shows no aggression to people or other dogs, come out and join our team!  We are always looking for good volunteers who realize the miracles that can come from sharing their dog with others.  It is a wonderful way to give back to the community and so very rewarding.  Although our volunteers give freely of their time, there are always costs involved in running a program such as this one.  From the cost of uniforms, leadership training, and evaluating new handlers and their dogs to travel expenses and supporting a healthy program, we are always dependent on the generosity of others to keep our programs out there in the community.  To donate visit our website at and hit the "Community Services" button.   There will be lots of information about what we do and how you can donate or make a donation to your local St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, so you can see your money working in your own community.  We are always grateful to our sponsors and those who donate."

The SJA therapy dogs and their families
I'd like to thank Leslie from the SJA Therapy Dogs "Paws 4 Reading" Program and the many amazing dogs and their families who give so much of their time everyday to help those who need it most.

If you would like to help out in anyway, please visit their website at


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