A program at High River's Notre Dame Collegiate is breaking down barriers around reading.

Teacher Rebecca Enright says it brings students out of their shell when they read aloud to a dog.

"Reading to Dogs is a program that originally started with Literacy For Life that Bonnie (Chant-Kinsman) had run, I was able to get in touch with Bonnie through our school board through a lady who had done it before in elementary school and we really wanted to bring the program to high school so Bonnie and I worked together to get that started," Enright explained. "It's about an hour on Thursdays and it's during our literacy block where students throughout the school are all reading and we have dogs coming in for students to practice their reading skills and we're also hoping the program will help the regulation and mental health of our kids." 

She says having that time to read aloud to a dog is very soothing for kids since there's no judgment coming for the animal and the kids can pet the dog and just be close to them.

Bonnie Chant-Kinsman noticed the program was being offered in Vancouver while she was with Literacy for Life and thought it would work locally and when that program dispersed she tried to set it up on her own but the pandemic got in the way.

"For a lot of the kids that we have right now it just gives them a safe place to practice their skills, our demographics are grade seven to grade 12 and so as kids get older the idea of reading out loud can get really scary but we also know from a lot of our research that reading out loud actually helps build reading comprehension and reading skills too so we want them to practice and then having a dog there makes it kind of a no risk scenario and then I just hear these kids reading out loud like I've never heard them do it before because they're too nervous," Enright says.

She says the smiles on the faces of the kids shows how much the program means to them and an older student came forward to say they've never felt so calm as they do after reading to the dog.

Chant-Kinsman says they're looking for some new recruits.

"I pretty well recruit anywhere, the ones (volunteers) I have right now were mostly in the program before, but we are doing a screening here at the school on March 30, and I interview people ahead of time and they come with their dog and we have a one-hour screening to do our due diligence to make sure they are a good fit for the program and we have a student from the school that will do a practice read with each dog," she says. "They also have to have an RCMP check to be able to come into the school, they're required to have liability insurance just in case and usually dog people and really care about the kids, I can't say enough about my volunteers."

If you're interested in helping out call Bonnie at 403-617-8811.

A student reads to man's best friend at Notre Dame Collegiate