THE small classroom at the end of Duncanrig Secondary’s first floor corridor is not usually as busy as this on a Tuesday afternoon.

A steady stream of teachers, support staff and curious pupils pop in, on some vague pretext or other.

The real reason they are here, of course, is the cute little bundle of fluff sniffing around the squishy beanbags and cosy rugs at the back of the room.

This is Bonnie the reading dog, one of a trio of adorable pups provided by local Therapet volunteers in a pioneering initiative intended to boost reading skills in high school. Duncanrig is one of the first secondary schools in South Lanarkshire to pilot the project and, judging by the number of passers-by dropping by to fuss over the furry visitors, it is already a hit.

“Bonnie comes into the school to help children improve their reading,” explains the East Kilbride high school’s headteacher, Lyndsay McRoberts.

“Pupils who might struggle to read out loud in class in front of their peers or teachers do not have the same worries when reading out loud to Bonnie.

“Dogs are non-judgemental, they don’t correct you when you make a mistake – they just sit and listen, and that’s a huge help when it comes to building up confidence.”

She adds: “So far, we have been working with three pupils and hope to build up numbers as we move through the school year.”

The problem, points out Therapet volunteer and Bonnie’s owner Dougie McConnell, is a lack of canine helpers.

“Demand is incredibly high,” says Dougie, with a smile. “More and more schools are keen to get involved and of course, Therapets are already going out to care homes and hospitals because of the health benefits.

“Many studies have shown that stroking animals significantly reduces high blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health.”

Recent research has also revealed people aged over 70 who have a pet are 36 per cent less likely to feel lonely or isolated, and scientists believe having a dog can even make you live longer.

Bonnie, a Maltese Shih tzu cross, takes turns with Tilly the cockapoo and Honey the Maltese Yorkie cross, visiting Duncanrig once a week.

Logan McCabe and Shayne Strachan, who are both 12 and in first year at Duncanrig, adore the dogs’ visits.

“I never liked reading because it was too difficult,” explains Shayne, who loves books about football.

“When I learned how to do it properly, I liked it more. But I still found it hard and I don’t like speaking in class.

“Bonnie really helps me feel more confident. Last week I was nervous when the teacher asked me to read out loud, so I just thought about Bonnie and that helped to calm me down.”

Logan, who likes Japanese comics and books about quests, says: “I’m dyslexic and I used to find reading really hard. I’m better at things when it’s one to one, and I really love dogs because I grew up with them. Dogs make me feel calmer because they are great wee animals.

“Dogs won’t give you into trouble if you get something wrong. They aren’t examining you all the time, they just like listening to your voice.”

He pauses, making a sad face. “I haven’t got a dog at home, unfortunately,” he adds, brightening: “But I do have a gerbil! So I might try reading to it.”

Duncanrig librarian Louise Cooper is impressed by the impact the reading dogs have had in school.

“Honey looks like Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, the dog in the children’s books,” she smiles. “The first time I brought her in, the library was packed with 30 noisy, third year pupils and a bunch of sixth years, and as soon as they spotted the dog, they all stopped and just gasped.

“It was eerie, almost, how calm the place became. I think at that point I realised – this could really work.”

Mrs McRoberts is hoping to expand the Therapet project to include fifth year students during exam season.

“It’s tied to our school-wide strategy of improving confidence and self-esteem in young people and the benefits extend beyond reading, to encompass aspects of mental health and wellbeing,” she explains.

A recent Canine Concern Scotland initiative called Paws for Stress found visits with therapy dogs significantly reduces students' perceived stress during exam week, and the team at Duncanrig are keen to try it out.

“We’d hope to bring in six or seven dogs to work with teams of fifth year students,” adds Mrs McRoberts.

Duncanrig is going to need a bigger classroom….

Find out more about Therapets at