Updated: Jul 28, 2020
How Dogs Can Help Children Learn to Read
Trained Reading Dogs significantly help increase children's ability to read. Many libraries have added these programs, as the dogs raise confidence (they don't correct children's pronunciation). The dog's infinite patience and presence calm the children enough so that they can slow down and focus. A well-trained dog will look at the book, then make eye contact with the child as the child describes what is happening in the story, then look back at the book as the child does.
Issues with children and reading fill the headlines. Struggling with reading can hamper a child's success in school and can quickly lead to frustration and diminishing returns. While it is clear that the more children read, the more success they have in school and in life, how to get to this improvement hasn't always been easy. Enter Reading to Dogs Programs. There are a variety of organizations that train dogs specifically for this purpose. And many therapy dogs do this service very well.
Reading to a dog lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones, even after a short reading period of 5-20 minutes. Dogs provide safe, friendly, physical contact, and make reading fun.
Professor of Education at Nottingham, Gill Johnson says, "Many primary schools are becoming increasingly pressurized environments and children (like adults) generally do not respond well to such pressure. A dog creates an environment that immediately feels more relaxed and welcoming. Reading can be a solitary activity, but can also be a pleasurable, shared social event. Children who are struggling to read benefit from the simple pleasure of reading to a loyal, loving listener."
"Children who are struggling to read, for whatever reason, need to build confidence and rediscover a motivation for reading. A dog is a reassuring, uncritical audience who will not mind if mistakes are made. Children can read to the dog, uninterrupted; comments will not be made. Errors can be addressed in other contexts at other times. For more experienced or capable readers, they can experiment with intonation and “voices,” knowing that the dog will respond positively – and building fluency further develops comprehension in readers."
There are many organizations that are made up of volunteer human-animal teams who do reading programs, such as Alliance for Therapy Dogs, Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, BARK and R.E.A.D or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, just to name a few. There are several thousand registered reading teams that go to schools and libraries. A trained Reading Dog, who may rest its head on the child’s lap, look back and forth between the book and the child in response to the child’s eyes, and generally show strongly engaged behaviors can help the child feel calm enough to focus on reading. Intervening with early reading programs can change a child’s life course, since insecurity about reading or reading aloud may cause the child to fall behind.
One such non-profit, all-volunteer organization that uses therapy dogs, called BARK, has a variety of programs for children reading to the dogs. Bark has 170 Dog Reading Teams in over 100 schools in California. They cite a 2010 study from UC Davis that “showed that kids in reading dog programs increase their reading skills by 12% to 20% over kids not in a reading dog program.” They also state, “Educators we have worked with report 82% of BARK students increased their reading skills, self-confidence, and/or class participation.”
Diane Sawyer on ABC World News reported on this reading program, "Kids have to practice, practice, practice to be good readers," said Francine Alexander, the chief academic officer at Scholastic, the children's book publisher. "And yet when you're practicing, if you make a mistake, it can feel risky and uncomfortable. But if you're practicing with a dog, you don't mind making the mistake."
A study this year by researchers at the University of California, Davis confirmed that children who read to Fido do perform better. Young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn't read to dogs showed no improvement.
Many Therapy Dogs make excellent listeners for children who are learning to read.
Here is a wonderful rescue dog who is an excellent listener.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection