Meet the Lancashire dogs who are helping teach children how to read

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 July 2014 | UPDATED: 10:41 11 January 2016

Reading together

Reading together

not Archant

There’s a nice twist to Oliver’s visits to a Bolton primary school, as Emily Rothery reports

Oliver signing inOliver signing in

Oliver, a friendly five-year- old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, visits Devonshire Road Primary School in Heaton, Bolton, every Friday afternoon. ‘It takes him ten minutes to get through the playground because the children just love him and always swarm around him. His tail never stops wagging,’ laughs his owner Barbara Winder.

Oliver is a registered Pets As Therapy dog and everyone agrees that he’s a bobby dazzler. He behaves impeccably, is never ruffled by the attention nor distracted by the many activities that go on in the daily life of a busy primary school. Once this unusual visitor has been signed in at the reception desk, he politely accepts a biscuit and settles in a quiet corner to listen to children reading.

Teacher Liz Gent explains: ‘Every term we select four Year Two pupils, aged six or seven, to read to Oliver. They may just need a little boost with their reading and sitting with Oliver helps to build their confidence and fosters a love of books.

‘Barbara and Oliver spend about 20 minutes with each pupil, sharing and talking about the book and also chatting about things that they have been doing both in and out of school. The children really look forward to it and benefit hugely.’

Barbara, Liz and Year 2 childrenBarbara, Liz and Year 2 children

Amira, Jenna, Laiba and Lewis are old hands when it comes to reading with Oliver and are happy to read in turn. It is clear they love reading to a furry friend who gives them full attention and is never judgemental. Oliver is a good listener and sometimes closes his eyes. Lewis and I agree that he is concentrating and not sleeping.

Lewis confides: ‘It’s nicer than reading to a person. I really like reading to him.’

Jenna says: ‘I like to read books about animals and I sometimes show the pictures to him.’

Liz discovered the Pets As Therapy Read2Dogs programme when visiting Crufts two years ago and was so impressed that she took the opportunity to get the school involved. ‘Parents have said that their children are now more eager to pick up a book at home and read with greater enjoyment.’

Barbara, a retired English lecturer and the proud owner of two PAT dogs, has also noticed the benefits. ‘Oliver is a lively boy at home but is so calm and good-natured when visiting the school or care homes where he does an equally important job. The children are so comfortable with Oliver, often they sit with their hand on him as they read and sometimes look at him to check that he is listening, often becoming more dramatic in their reading and becoming more relaxed in tackling new words.’

Research shows that children can be nervous when reading to others but become less self-conscious when reading to a passive pet. Pilot schemes throughout the country have shown that educator dogs are proving to be very motivational in developing self-esteem alongside literacy skills.

One PAT Dog, a golden retriever named Google, not only listens to reading but can also read about ten flash cards, which spell instructions such as ‘Sit’ or ‘Cross paws.’ He has also been instrumental in developing confidence in writing skills through sharing his diary with pupils. The clever canine has been used as the reward for progress and improving behaviour and as a therapy dog to help with issues around bullying and bereavement.

The children at Devonshire Road School have clearly taken Oliver to their hearts. ‘All the pupils in Year Two have the chance to meet Oliver and learn more about handling dogs. He’s very popular,’ says Liz. ‘As part of our Investors in Pupils award, each class has a budget for replacing classroom equipment that gets lost or damaged, such as glue-sticks or whiteboards. A lot of classes were thrifty with their budgets last year and the idea was to donate what was left to a charity of their choice. The children all agreed to donate the money to Pets As Therapy. Barbara and Oliver were invited to attend a special assembly just before Christmas and were presented with a cheque for £200 which shows just how much their inspiring visits are appreciated.’

PAT pet facts

Pets As Therapy is a national, community based charity, founded in 1983, providing therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospices, special needs schools, nursing and care homes from volunteers with their pet dogs.

There are over 5,000 active PAT dogs working throughout the UK.

Pets As Therapy also work with practitioners to help people with stroke rehabilitation and overcome dog phobias.

The Read2Dogs programme was founded in 2010 to help children in classroom settings improve their literacy skills as well as increasing their confidence and enjoyment of reading.

All dogs are welcomed as PAT dogs; they need to have been with their owner for at least six months, over nine months of age and to pass the temperament assessment.

Pets As Therapy receives no government funding and relies totally on the generosity of supporters. The charity would like to recruit more suitable dogs to visit schools and new volunteers are always welcome.

To find out more about Google, the golden retriever reading dog, go to

To find out more about Pets As Therapy, visit or call Georgia Martin on 0303 040 1952.

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