“Therapy Dogs International [TDI] started in the US in the 1970s, with the idea that petting a dog can brighten up someone’s day – be it in an home, hospital or school,” explains Russell D. Russell, a Phuket-based dog trainer who – along with his mother – is the driving force behind the Tail Wagging Tutors programme at British International School, Phuket.
According to its website, TDI is a ‘volunteer organisation dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions and wherever else therapy dogs are needed.’
“I came across their reading programme [Tail Wagging Tutors] when I was living in the States, and saw how it helped kids with poor reading skills dramatically improve,” says Russell, as we talk in the foyer of the school, with his two canine companions sitting at our feet, ears pricked up listening to our conversation. “When kids are sitting quietly reading one-on-one with a dog, there’s no judgement from others., which you can get in groups.
“While the dogs are great at helping kids that can’t read well, they also help encourage reading generally, and help some children overcome a fear of dogs,” explains Russell, who runs the programme as a community outreach project for the Thailand Canine Academy (TCA), and Siam Guardian Services (SGS), where he is a manager and K9 trainer.
The dogs are Kay, a five-and-a-half-year-old purebred German Shepherd, who is also a certified search and rescue, narcotics, and protection dog; Sassy, the same age, who is a Border Collie, Springer Spaniel mix, and agility dog; and three year-old Shadow, a Great Dane and therapy dog.
“Great Danes are perfect family dogs, and a great way to show children that just because a dog is big, doesn’t mean it’s going to bite,” Russell says.
The Tail Wagging Tutors sessions are one-on-one for maximum benefit, and while for some children just being in close proximity to the canine is enough, others prefer to lie right next to them.
“The kids are loving it, and parents are glad to see progress in reading skills. It’s also such a unique thing to have in a school,” says Russell. British International School, Phuket is currently the only Phuket school with the Tail Wagging Tutors programme.
“The sessions are available to any child in the Primary school, and provide a time for them to read without pressure from adults in a relaxed environment,” says Clare Bolzon, Primary Learning Support Teacher and BISP coordinator for the Tail Wagging Tutors programme.
“Every student will spend 15 minutes with a dog every week for six weeks. It’s proving so popular that we always have a waiting list. Improvement in reading confidence is the main change we see in the children, and they’re more willing to try new words with the dog beside them.
“After a session, kids often ask me ‘Can we read at home with our own dog or cat?’ And of course the answer is yes, anything that encourages a child to read is good.
“We are so lucky to have Russell and his mum come in every week with their dogs – they go out of their way to help, and every session always blows me away,” says Ms Bolzon.
For more information, contact Clare Bolzon: [email protected]