A dog has become the star pupil at a primary school after he learned how to read. Fernie a two year-old chocolate labrador, was introduced to classes as part of a national scheme to give young children motivation and confidence. But since starting at Winford Primary School, near Bristol, Fernie has been taught to recognise commands on four flashcards. Owner and headmaster Nik Gardner says Fernie can read the words ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘roll over’ and ‘spin’. And Nik claims that with further training Fernie could learn up to 20 more words. He said: “Training Fernie to recognise words was surprisingly simple.
“For his initial training I used the clicker technique, where the dog learns to associate a treat with the distinctive sound made by a clicker when he responds correctly to a command.
Then, while still using the clicker technique, I started showing him simple commands on a flashcard, which he recognises as a shape, whilst giving him the spoken command, so he learned to associate the two.
After a while, I stopped using the spoken command and just used the flashcard on its own, because he had learned to read it.”
Nik added: “If children can see that the dog can read the flash cards, then they can do it too – so it’s a huge motivation for them.”
The words Fernie recognises are all written in the same black typeface on identical sized and shaped flashcards.
Nik has been training Fernie since he was a pup and has taken him to work each day since he was five months old.
The friendly pooch snuggles up for a story with pupils, improving their reading skills by giving them extra motivation and confidence.
He is an educational assistance dog and is being trained as part of a national scheme called Dogs Helping Kids.
The Devon-based charity uses highly trained dogs to teach children non-violence, empathy and trust.
Research shows dogs can improve children’s literacy, behaviour and self-esteem, as well as teaching them to respect and care for animals.
Nik added: “Fernie is incredibly calm, and has been socialised around children from a very early age. We find he has a very positive effect on children’s learning.
For example, after he sits with pupils to listen to them read, which the children love, because they don’t feel ‘judged’, they get to do some training with him and reward him with a treat.
He’s also on hand for children who might feel nervous or anxious during the school day – a few minutes of cuddles really helps to cheer them up.”
Fernie also gets to enjoy a lunch time walk with his owner and pupils while they learn road safety skills.
“Being able to read is only a small part of what Fernie brings to the school,” said Nik.