Manitoba

Book buddies: Winnipeg students get confidence boost by reading to 4-legged friends

The Winnipeg Humane Society's "See Spot Read" program helps students from Winnipeg schools improve their reading skills with the help of therapy dogs from St. John Ambulance.

'See Spot Read' program at Winnipeg Humane Society eases reading anxiety by pairing kids with therapy dogs

A student from Beaumont School reads to Bailey, a four-year-old English labrador, during a session of the Winnipeg Humane Society's 'See Spot Read' program. (Warren Kay/CBC)

A program at the Winnipeg Humane Society is proving that dogs really are a person's best friend — and that includes people who are working on improving their reading skills.

The "See Spot Read" program helps students from Winnipeg schools feel more confident about reading — by having them read aloud to therapy dogs from St. John Ambulance.

The humane society program is now over 10 years old and has helped boost the confidence of hundreds of children, says Danisha Jarrett, the Winnipeg Humane Society's assistant manager of education.

The dogs provide comfort to the kids while they learn how to read, she says, giving them a chance to read to a listener without feeling judged.

"Their anxiety levels go down. The first day that they come in, they're kind of reserved," said Jarrett.

A Winnipeg student reads to a therapy dog from St. John Ambulance as part of the 'See Spot Read' program. (Warren Kay/CBC)

"When they come in for the second, the third, fourth session, you can really see a difference. They're running in, they're hugging their dogs. They're excited to be here, so it's great to see."

"The first time you think 'how are they going to understand you?'" said Mila, a Grade 5 student from Beaumont School participating in the program.

"But then they curl up beside you and they listen to you, sit there, or lay down and they're calm," she said.

The program has proven both successful and very popular, with students waiting up to a year to get into a session.

See some of the See Spot Read participants:

Winnipeg students get over anxiety of learning how to read thanks to four-legged friends. 2:59

Participants in the free program meet for an hour every Tuesday for 10 weeks, with new sessions starting every fall, winter and spring at the Winnipeg Humane Society on Hurst Way or at the West Kildonan Library.

Each group includes up to six students, from Grade 1 to 6, who meet with three therapy dogs and their owners.

'You know they actually listen'

Eva Kazun and her four-year-old schnoodle, Barney, have volunteered with See Spot Run for two years. Kazun says she's always wanted to be a part of the society's program.

"It's just amazing. You know, what would be hard words … it just comes out of them so fluently now," she said. "I feel absolutely wonderful the way that Barney especially is helping, and he's being so calm."

She says the dogs also benefit from spending time with the children.

Mila, a Grade 5 student from Beaumont School, reads to Barney and his owner, Eva Kazun. (Warren Kay/CBC)

At a recent See Spot Read session, Mila read to Kazun and Barney.

"It makes me feel happy because it's not like someone is listening to me, but the dog is listening to you," said the Grade 5 student. "So that's how you know they actually listen."

Leah McBride, a volunteer with St. John Ambulance, participates in the program with her four-year-old English labrador, Bailey. McBride says the therapy dogs bring comfort to people of all ages in various programs.

"We go into nursing homes to visit the elderly people. We go into Red River College or the University of Manitoba during exam week, because it's stressful for the students," said McBride. 

"The kids here, they just loved communicating with the dogs and reading to them."

Building relationships

Jarrett says the program also teaches children about the importance of relationships between animals and humans, and about animal welfare.

"We've seen children coming from many different backgrounds who haven't been exposed to dogs or other animals," she said. "It builds empathy and compassion."

Danisha Jarrett is the assistant manager of education with the Winnipeg Humane Society. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Reading material is donated to the program by Winnipeg Public Library, said Jarrett, adding the humane society recently received a generous donation that has helped expand the program — but would like to see it grow even more.

"We would love to expand it even further and have it from Monday to Friday, all day, every day."

About the Author

Marjorie Dowhos is the host of CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon. Marjorie joined CBC Manitoba in 2010 and has worked as a reporter and as host of CBC Winnipeg News at 11. Prior to that, she spent four years in Thunder Bay, Ont., as a TV news anchor.

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