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Going to the Dogs

Can a canine help your child learn to read?

Everywhere I go, it’s the new, hot thing to jump start interest and proficiency in reading. You probably have a few in your neighborhood. I’m talking about programs, usually in libraries and schools, for children to read to dogs. The names of these programs vary—R.E.A.D., Reading with Rover, All Ears Reading, Literacy Education Assistance Pups (LEAP), Sit Stay Read!, and Canine Assistance Reading Education (CARE) are just a few—but they share similar goals and underlying rationale. Kids will enjoy reading more, and struggling readers will make more progress when they read to a friendly and attentive canine. The theory is that a friendly dog presence is calming and non-threatening. No fear of canine correction or low grades. Instead, big brown eyes will gaze up worshipfully into your child’s face no matter how tortuous the process of sounding out those words. Then, there’s always the opportunity to nuzzle soft fur. For libraries, an added draw of reading to dogs programs is their popular appeal, a great way to bring families with young children into the library and maybe stay to check out a book.

But, what’s the science behind reading to dogs programs? Let me take off my adoring grandmother/dog lover glasses and put on my curmudgeonly psychologist one, to look at these programs through the lens of evidence-based interventions. Is “reading to dogs” the latest empty fad, or intriguing promise? In this age of test-driven accountability, could something as old school as a slobbering, cuddly dog be the secret to boosting reading scores?

There is evidence that the presence of a friendly dog, not necessarily your own pet, or even a dog you’ve met before, can lower blood pressure and reduce stress when reading. This relaxation effect has been found for adult and child readers. Moreover, studies has shown that children with pets, usually dogs or cats, perceive these animals as important sources of emotional support, underscoring the way animals are nonjudgmental, accepting, and affirming. In the words of one ten year old, “my dog’s my friend no matter what.”

Informal testimonials to reading programs abound. Children say they enjoy the sessions, parents are enthusiastic, and teachers who incorporate reading to dogs in the classroom say they are helpful. Systematic evaluations are lacking, however. The key question—Do these programs improve children’s reading fluency and understanding?—is still unanswered.

Future research might not supply a simple answer, because programs vary widely. Some are targeted as an intervention for struggling or reluctant readers, with repeated sessions over time. For example, in one program third-graders read to one of three shelter-rescued dogs for 20 minutes per week over 16 weeks. After participation, children improved their reading fluency by an average of 12%. In another program, home-schooled children read for 15-20 minutes over ten weeks. Reading fluency improved by 30%, and three-quarters of the parents reported their child was now reading more frequently. These results are promising, but the studies are small scale, involving just a handful of children. We also don’t know if these short term gains are long-lasting.

Many other programs are “one-shot” open sessions, usually held in libraries, where children and their parents can come for an hour or so to read to a dog. Children at all levels of reading—advanced to struggling—may be included. Programs also vary in their structure and adult support. In some programs, volunteer handlers serve as reading coaches, encouraging children to sound out a word, or explain its meaning on behalf of the presumably puzzled dog. In classroom-based programs, the regular teacher or a reading instructor might guide the child’s efforts. The adult in the equation is likely to be important, but we don’t know yet how that dynamic works.

To get the most out of a “reading to dogs” programs, here are some useful guidelines:

Know the goals. Is the program designed as a fun activity for all? Or an extra help session for the struggling reader? If the latter, how will the payoff be measured?

Evaluate the human connection. A reading intervention requires a reading professional, a certified teacher or reading specialist. Volunteer dog handlers may be enthusiastic and encouraging, but they should not be confused with a targeted intervention delivered by a specialist to boost your child’s reading scores.

Think safety first. Are dogs certified to work with children? Are participating animals in good health, always monitored, and temperamentally suited for this work? Are there proper sanitation procedures, like washing hands before and after touching the dog? How does the program respond when a child shows fear of a dog, or when a child is allergic?

Doggies get stressed too. Does the program keep participating dogs safe and happy as well?

To learn more: Lane, H. B., & Zavada, S. D. W. (2013). When reading gets ruff: Canine-assisted reading programs. Reading Teacher 67, 87-95.

More from Gail F. Melson Ph.D.
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More from Gail F. Melson Ph.D.
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