The Malta Independent 18 October 2021, Monday

Dogs do not judge your reading

Joanna Demarco Sunday, 18 March 2018, 09:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

San Andrea School has taken on the cutest initiative to improve literacy, and other daily struggles

Ilio the service dog is a mixed breed dog, the product of breeding a purebred Golden Retriever with a purebred Labrador Retriever and takes up almost half the width of the room where the interview is held, as he lies down on his belly, wearing his work vest. When he is wearing the vest, he knows he is working, and is in complete work mode. Despite his overwhelming size, Ilio is very well behaved. His presence is calming and he is described as a ‘gentle giant’.

Over the past few weeks, Ilio has been the main service dog that has been gracing San Andrea School with his presence, apart from another two canines; Toby and Enzo, all from the Service Dog Malta Foundation. Teachers at the school are in utter awe of the impact that these dogs have had. What started as an incentive to improve literacy, has turned into something more.


Reading to a dog

So what is Ilio’s role in the school? Well, it is now varied, but his primary role is to listen attentively to children reading. When seated in his library-reading corner specifically designed for him, he is read to by various children who encounter difficulties when reading.

This role is mainly designed for literacy purposes; “Children who encounter difficulties when reading may become very anxious,” Rachel Ellul Wain, the Literacy and Numeracy coordinator of the school explained. “A child may lack confidence in reading for various reasons. Subsequently they can become anxious. So what this therapy does is reduce the anxiety, because the child feels they are not being judged when they are reading to a dog. The dog will not stop them or ask questions, the dog will just sit and listen. So this reduces anxiety and consequently improves literacy.” 

“Moreover, if a student usually fidgets with their hands when reading, and are anxious, this time without thinking they pat the dog instead,” she explained, as this sensory, repetitive rhythm has a soothing effect.

Qualified animal therapist Stephanie Theuma (who possibly has the best job title in the world as), Puppy Coordinator of NGO Service Dogs Malta Foundation, is also employed by the school to support children with specific needs, always accompanied by a dog. She sits in for the reading lessons but reassures the child about to read that she is not the one being read to.

“I tell the students ‘you are not reading to me, I have work to do, you are reading to Ilio. Ask me if you have questions, but it is Ilio who is listening.’ Then you become invisible, and they relax,” she said.

However, despite being focused mainly on literacy improvements, like a slice of bread placed in a duck pond, every child wants a piece of Ilio’s calm attentiveness. During library lessons, which are held at least once a week,the children gather in groups to read to the dog. “We are going to reach out to everybody,” said Rachel, “however more time is given to those who have more urgent needs, who are emotional, or going through a rough time.”

The positive effects of the whole exercise seem perfectly encapsulated in one statement by Stephanie. “Having a child asking you ‘when am I coming again to read?’ is already a very big thing,” she said. “There have also been children who practise reading during the week, so that when they read to the dog, they read well.”

For students with literacy struggles, those going through difficult times, or simply anyone who needs cheering up, Ilio, who has been working for the past three years,and Toby and Enzo(still under training) are there to serve.

Moreover, Ilio’s extraordinary awareness gives him the ability to sense emotions, and consequentlygive special, undivided attention to someone who may be feeling down. “He sensesit,” said Stephanie. “Even with adults. Yesterday, a teacher was a bit emotional, and he pulled me towards her as she was talking to someone, I had to excuse myself for interrupting a conversation.”


Service dogs help people with autism and diabetes

Ilio has also been trained to help people with autism. He senses achild with autism from a mile away, and when a group of students enter the same room as him, he is quick to approach the child in order to promptly be at his or her service.

“His presence can have a calming effect when achildhas a tantrum,” Rachelexplained. She added that not all childrenreact to the dog in the same way. Whilst some children are very responsive towards a dog,others need time to slowlygain confidence.

The dog accompanies the child in a slow and calm manner and tends to needs which may arise. Deep touch pressure is sometimes used as a calming method. Dogs such as Ilio are trained to put the right amount of pressure on the child for therapeutic reasons.

At Service Dogs Malta Foundation, the service dogs are also trained to help people suffering from diabetes. “There is a sequence of training led by our trainer Robert Spiteri who determines what kind of work the particular dog is more suited to,” explained Stephanie. “The dog himself or herself shows youwhich condition they are more inclined to be suited for.”

Service dogs that are trained to help people with diabetes can sense the sugar levels of the individual up to two hours before, “The dog is trained to touch the person when they sense that the sugar level is going up or down,” Stephanie said. “In the case of small children, the dog is taught to alert an adult.”


Dogs are given free of charge

Each dog costs the foundation about €15,000 to €20,000. The costs include buying the dogs with good quality bloodlines, training, vet costs and so on. Joseph Stafrace, founder of Service Dogs Malta Foundation from the beginning insists that these dogs are given to families free of charge. The dog and the child suffering from autism or diabetes choose each other with the help of the trainer. Stephanie emphasized that the pair “have to be buddies”. The NGO is funded solely by fund-raising activities and generousdonations.

On 25March,a spring fair will be held at San Andrea School where ServiceDogs will be in attendance for the public to meet.

For more information about the NGO, visit:

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