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Early in 2015, Mrs Kimberley Jefferd, Head of Exceptional Learners at St Peters Indooroopilly, was sorting through her junk mail, when one of the items caught her eye. It was a flyer from Story Dogs, a not-for-profit organisation that trains volunteer dog and handler teams to assist school students with reading.

The program was designed to develop literacy by allowing students to read aloud to Story Dog companions free of intimidation and judgment. However, Mrs Jefferd was most attracted by its secondary benefit – relaxation, and decided to trial it in Ms Robin Gould’s Year 7 Academic Skills Development classes.

‘It’s an opportunity to decompress,’ Mrs Jefferd said. ‘Because school can be stressful.’

As a result of the program’s popularity among students, Story Dog volunteers Diana Wilkinson and Mr Basil, a black toy spoodle, have returned to St Peters Indooroopilly in 2016 for a second year.

Diana and Mr Basil, who is Story Dog accredited to work with minors, visit St Peters weekly or fortnightly as available, to spend ten-minute one-on-one sessions with Year 7 students, who read them their own short stories or excerpts from textbooks; practice oral presentations; or just chat.

Mrs Jefferd applauds the program putting smiles on the faces of students in her program, who often turn up to class early at lunchtime to squeeze in extra time with Mr Basil.

‘We see the kids smile,’ Mrs Jefferd said. ‘In terms of the literacy side, which wasn’t our goal, we get to hear the kids read fluently and expressively, because they tend not to in a classroom environment because all eyes are on them.’

For volunteer and Story Dog handler Diana, spending time with St Peters students has been a gratifying experience. She and Mr Basil joined the Story Dog team in 2015 after a friend who was already involved in the service recommended it.

‘I feel so lucky to be in the program,’ Diana said, ‘and the fact that Ms Robin Gould invited us back this year gives us the opportunity to again enjoy the very positive and happy reaction the kids have to Mr Basil. To hear them reading out loud with increasing confidence each visit is so rewarding.’

And Mr Basil, too, relishes his role as a Story Dog.

‘He knows we are going to school when I put his little Story Dog jacket on and his excitement starts to build!’ Diana said. ‘He loves the kids and when we arrive jumps up on them and gives them a ‘hello’ lick (kiss)! They respond so warmly to him and love cuddling him and playing with him. He calms down and sits very attentively when the kids are reading to him.’

The program was implemented in 2009 in Murwillumbah, NSW by two parents of primary and secondary school students, and is based on the successful American Literacy program Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.), developed a decade earlier in Utah, USA.

For more information about Story Dogs, or to sponsor the education and accreditation of a Story Dog like Mr Basil, visit storydogs.org.au.