While similar schemes have been successfully rolled out in the US and EU countries including the UK and the Netherlands, using animals for therapeutic and educational purposes has yet to gain any major prominence in Portugal.
The practice of reading to dogs is understood to have originated in the US circa 1999 with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ). It gradually extended to a number of other countries, such as the UK, where the ‘Bark and Read’ scheme, supported by the Kennel Club, has been met with enthusiasm.
Jointly devised by the Balance Pedagogical Centre in Silves and the Hello Bello Dog Care Centre in Lagoa, the ‘Reading to Dogs’ project brings together children and boarding and rescue dogs in a safe and supervised environment, in an initiative that is beneficial for both children and animals. It is aimed not only at children who struggle with reading, but also those with developmental disorders such as ADHD or Autism.
Wieteke Abram, a teacher for 20 years and founder of the Balance Pedagogical Centre, explained: “The fact is children who have problems with reading often don’t like to read because they are embarrassed. So they read less and less.
“But put them next to a dog and that changes. Children just love animals. The dogs don’t judge or correct; they sit and listen and you can see they are enjoying it. It is a soothing interaction. Dogs don’t hear the errors, mistakes are not important, so it’s not scary for the child any more. It becomes positive and enjoyable, and their behaviours reflect”.
The first trail session took place last week on Friday, with three local schoolchildren aged 8 to 11.
Year 7 student Rebecca Verschuure, 11, said: “I like it when the dogs calm down and I can talk to them by reading”.
But, she added, as dogs are “easily distracted”, she thinks “they like simpler books best”.
Eight-year-old Year 2 student Milou Haen also enjoyed the session, saying it was “fun”, and “nice to make the dogs calm”.
“It’s amazing to see how the dogs react”, says Marga Otten, owner of Hello Bello, adding “it’s also a great opportunity to teach children about animals”.
Ms. Abram says she is pleased the partnership is able to provide an alternative option to help children build their skills and confidence.
“What is important in education is to realise that a group of children is a group of individuals who need individual approaches. They are all intelligent in their own way”.
For more information on ‘Reading with Dogs’, contact Wieteke Abram on 918 577 190, or Facebook: Balance – Centro Pedagógico.