Reading Dogs Giving Children the Confidence to Read AloudIn classrooms across the country and in some homes too, dogs are making a difference to children’s lives. This is not just as pets or to help guide children with visual impairments, or to calm a child on the autism spectrum, but to just be there and listen to a child when they are reading aloud. As a child, I struggled to read aloud. My mild dyslexia meant that I got words confused or re-read the same line twice. Children in those days were unrelenting in their mockery and the teachers just gave up on me as not being very good. However, through hard work and reading to my assembled dolls and toys, I slowly gained the confidence to read aloud. Recently my daughter, who had similar problems, was taken aside by a teacher and introduced to a Chocolate Labrador named Sarge. He is the calmest dog we’ve ever met and he will sit next to her and listen to her read. Never judging or criticising or laughing, he just listens and she is gaining the confidence to read. It’s because of wonderful reading dogs like Sarge that I have worked on this guide to reading dogs and how they are helping children read aloud with confidence. When therapy or service dogs come to mind, you’re likely thinking about an animal that helps a disabled individual carry out everyday tasks like navigating through the world or warning of danger. Therapy dogs have varied roles though and can help children in large, unexpected ways, such as learning to read. According to the World Literacy Foundation, more than 796 million people are completely or functionally illiterate, costing the global economy $1.2 Trillion in 2015. Therapy dogs who help children read serve the vital function of working to eradicate these somber figures. Your next question may be how does a therapy dog help?
How Dogs Help Children ReadThe idea of using therapy dogs to help children read is not new. It was a concept put into action by the organization, Intermountain Therapy Animals, in 1999 with its Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program. Other organizations such as Read2Dogs and Reading with Rover follow a similar approach. The idea is that having a dog around creates a non-threatening environment for children to read. Children feel less self-conscious about their developing skills in the presence of one whose skills don’t exceed their own. The presence of a therapy dog also encourages social interaction, which reinforce this positive setting. The unconditional love that a dog provides certainly helps the learning process. The READ program has trained over 3,500 teams of therapy handlers and therapy dogs within the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries in Europe. Not only is the program helping children read but it also fosters a love of books that can encourage a love of lifetime learning.
A Positive DistractionTherapy dogs provide a positive distraction. For children learning to read, the presence of the therapy dog can help them overcome the negative experiences like teasing, bullying, or even inadequacy that a child may have come to associate with the act of reading out loud. The presence of a therapy dog draws the focus away from minor mistakes that a child learning to read may make, allowing the child to practice and hone their skill.
Encouraging EngagementThe presence of a dog in the classroom builds on the natural inclination people have to be around other living things. Providing a common ground for both children and adults to interact, a therapy dog becomes the common connection. A dog can have even more positive effects on those present. The study “Effects of Social Support by a Dog on Stress Modulation in Male Children with Insecure Attachment” by Beats, Julius, Turner, and Kotrschal found that a dog’s presence can help children overcome stress and insecurity better than adults interventions.
What Happens?Therapy dogs act as a go-between in the learning process. Children read to dogs while learning this life-necessary skill. Reading to a dog creates a less threatening atmosphere and can be a vital first step where a child feels safe to make mistakes and begins gaining comfort reading aloud. Children benefit from the unconditional love and non-judgmental attitude that therapy dogs bring to a learning environment. For children, that means:
- Less anxiety
- Greater engagement with a therapy dog present
- Increased confidence in the absence of negative feedback
- Greater and better social engagement with peers
Understanding the ProcessThe study “Children Reading to Dogs: A Systematic Review of the Literature” by Hall, Gee, and Mills explains how the concept of therapy dogs and reading skill development in children works. Researchers identified several positive outcomes that come from getting dogs into the act. The documented effects on reading behavior included:
- Reduced reading anxiety
- Greater reading confidence
- Increased reading motivation
- Improved reading attitude
- Increased social interactions
- Improved self-esteem
- Reduced blood pressure when reading to a dog
Reading to DogsIt is commonly known that children often have imaginary friends. It’s often part of the maturing process and aids with learning the skills of relationship building and can be an outlet for emotional issues. Utilizing dogs to help children read is also one way in which we can encourage children to succeed. It begins a positive cycle that benefits the child at the onset. If a child can learn by reading to a therapy dog, they gain the self-confidence and can take it to the next level. Then, the child can more easily transition to the classroom, taking the skills learned there. Armed with this boost in self-esteem, children who may fear reading out loud have a positive experience on which to build. The important thing is to set children on the right track, positively learning to read from the beginning.
Health Benefits of Therapy DogsThe benefits are not limited to helping children learn to read and its associated social effects. Children can also gain significant health benefits that extend beyond book learning. An Early Childhood Education Journal article, titled “Canine Visitors: The Influence of Therapy Dogs on Young Children’s Learning and Well-Being in Classrooms and Hospitals,” identified several health effects that may add to the growing list of positive outcomes from using therapy dogs to help kids learn to read. The effects were extended to positive impacts with measurable results. Among the results that researchers found were:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower anxiety levels
- Lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol