Can Dogs Motivate Children to Read?

With a dog as an audience, children are more likely to persevere at reading.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

University of British Columbia photo
Source: University of British Columbia photo

With the proliferation of image-based social media hubs on the web, such as Instagram, Pinterest, or Tumblr, and other platforms like Facebook or Twitter, which are often dominated by videos, it seems that children are less motivated to read, beyond the minimal level needed to navigate these sites on the Internet. According to a number of studies, today's children seem to read less from books and do not seem to be inspired to challenge themselves to improve their reading skills, which has become a concern among teachers. Many educators suggest that we must find some way to get children to be more interested in learning to read, and to be more perseverant when it comes to challenging themselves at this task.

According to a new study coming out of the University of British Columbia, Okanogan, one possible solution to this problem may involve four paws and a tail. The lead researcher was Camille Rousseau and her co-researcher was Christine Tardif-Williams of Brock University. They hypothesized that one of the reasons why students did not work hard or challenge themselves on more difficult reading tasks had to do with anxiety in the form of fear of failure or the possibility that they would appear to be incompetent or stupid when their reading skills were evaluated by adult observers, such as teachers. Since therapy dogs are being more frequently used at schools to deal with anxieties, they suggest that having a dog present while the child tries to read a difficult passage might lower the child's emotional stress and encourage them to keep at it.

To test this they took a sample of children from grades 1 to 3 and examined their behavior while reading with or without a dog present. Several dog breeds were used varying from large (e.g. a Bernese Mountain dog) to small (e.g. a Maltese/Yorkshire Terrier cross). A different combination of dogs attended each of the data collection sessions. According to Rousseau "Our study focused on whether a child would be motivated to continue reading longer and persevere through moderately challenging passages when they are accompanied by a dog."

For this reason, the children who participated had to have their reading level tested to determine their capabilities and to ensure that each child would be assigned appropriate story excerpts. The trick was that the researchers then chose stories that were slightly beyond the child's reading level. Here the notion is that working on these text passages would be challenging but not too daunting for the child to manage.

The reading task involved having the child read aloud to an adult, to a dog with the handler present, or to just the adult and the handler with no dog present. Remember that the passage selected would be a bit on the difficult side for each child. After finishing the first page each child was offered the option of continuing on for another page or ending the session.

Rousseau summarizes their results by saying that "The findings showed that the children spend significantly more time reading and showed more persistence when a dog — regardless of breed or age — was in the room as opposed to when they read without them." To give you an idea of the magnitude of this effect, about 40% of the children chose to read the second part of the story when there was no dog there compared to about 70% who chose to continue reading when the dog was present.

In addition to the measure of just how motivated children were to continue at the reading task, the researchers also measured what the child was feeling when they were reading to the dog or to an audience of only people. In these measures, the researchers found that the children reported that they were more interested in the material and that they felt more competent about their reading skills during the sessions where the dog was present.

"There have been studies that looked at the impact of therapy dogs on enhancing students’ reading abilities, but this was the first study that carefully selected and assigned challenging reading to children," she said.

So the conclusion to be drawn from this study is that if you want your child to practice their reading skills more diligently, and to enjoy the process of reading to a greater degree, you might want to change your kid's bedtime routine. For many parents, this includes a storytime, where their child helps them read the text from a book. But this data suggests that you should also think about including own pet version of Lassie or Rover on the bed to serve as a target audience.

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Camille Xinmei Rousseau & Christine Yvette Tardif-Williams (2019) Turning the Page for Spot: The Potential of Therapy Dogs to Support Reading Motivation Among Young Children, Anthrozoös, 32:5, 665-677, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2019.1645511