He may be a devoted lapdog for most of the week, but our little Bertie is a working dog too: through the fabulous charity, Canine Concern.
Our youngest left infant school last year, and I knew I would miss being part of that community very much. We’d been involved in life there for over seven years, as parents, as fundraisers, and on the governing board too, and it felt like such a wrench to be leaving. So when I saw a request for a Canine Concern dog to visit, and listen to some children reading every week, I couldn’t wait to volunteer.
We applied via the charity, and met our local rep, Penny Dent. She told us what to expect, and observed Bertie for a while – because she had to be sure that the job would suit Bertie and not cause him any anxiety, as well as making sure that we would both be right for the school. She was happy to recommend us, and we started our visits in September 2021.
So now we go into school one afternoon every week, and listen to children who need a little confidence boost or extra practice with their reading. Each week, six of them come in to see us and share a book, giving them some reading time in a calm environment, with a furry companion.
The children who are chosen to see us all have different reading levels, but all of them get benefit from reading to Bertie. Some are able to read well, but don’t have the confidence to do it out loud, especially to an adult – but reading to a small and fluffy pup is a different matter. Some struggle with reading altogether, and to begin with they’re happiest to show us the pictures and talk about them, rhather than attempt the words – and soon they build up to reading some words out loud, more and more each time we visit. The most wonderful thing is that by the time they’ve finished their string of sessions with us, every child we’ve met has advanced to reading us a full story in one sitting.
Some of them are a little bit hesitant about meeting a dog initially, but it helps that Berts is on the small side, and that he adapts his behaviour to each child. He’s learnt very quickly which ones love to fuss him, and who prefers to sit quietly, and he remembers that each week. They all grow more comfortable in his company, letting him sit next to them while they read, and giving him a pat here and there. And at the end of their slot with us, they all give Bertie a doggie chocolate drop – he’s very keen on that part. We get such a lovely welcome from all the teaching staff, and all the children who see us as we walk through school. It really is a delight.
One of my favourite parts – aside from watching the children develop their reading – is seeing the mood change that a little time with Bertie can bring about for them. Sometimes a child will have had a playtime argument, and come in feeling a bit upset. Sometimes they are feeling frustrated, or not that interested in the book they have. But after a few minutes with Bertie, they are always smiling, and sometimes visibly calmer, and ready to share a story.
Bertie’s been adopted as the school Reading Dog – and we’ve even been on a school trip, walking up with the whole of Year 2 to Milton Keynes Central Library. He absolutely loved being out and about with all the children, and I was very proud to accompany him on their mission for stories.
Bertie loves it. He’s learned all the cues that tell him it’s time for school, and he pulls me down the road to get to the gates. He just can’t wait to get in and see the children, then lie down next to them for some soothing words and the occasional pat – and of course, his treats at the end! And as for me: well, you don’t go into professional writing without a love of reading. It’s probably not a surprise to learn that it was my dearest hobby as a child, and my favourite way to unwind now. Helping children to discover books and all the wonders within them – and hopefully gain a lifelong love the same as mine – is just brilliant. And I hope the children remember Bertie, the little pup who liked a story, for a long time to come as well.
If you’d like to find out more about Canine Concern, it’s a wonderful charity – they connect dog owners not just with schools, but with a variety of organisations in the community who love to welcome doggy visitors, because it benefits those communities so much – whether they are schools, care homes, hospitals, or a whole range of other places where a dog can bring lots of joy, calm and support.