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Therapy Dogs Help Children Learn to Read

child reading with dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Reading with a therapy dog may be the extra incentive children need to conquer challenging reading passages
  • The presence of a therapy dog had a positive effect on the children’s motivation to read and their level of persistence when reading something challenging
  • Researchers suggested that the development of a “gold-standard canine-assisted intervention” program could be beneficial for struggling young readers
  • Dogs are excellent vehicles for communication and offer a safe, nonjudgmental environment in which children can practice reading

For children learning to read, having the proper motivation can mean the difference between success and setbacks, and this is yet another area where dogs can enrich our lives. Reading with a therapy dog may be the extra incentive children need to conquer challenging reading passages, according to a study by University of British Columbia researchers.1

"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," study author Camille Rousseau said in a news release,2 and the results were encouraging.

Dogs Motivate Children to Keep Reading

In the U.S., many children struggle to read with ease. Among fourth graders, 32% are not reading at the basic level and only 37% are considered proficient readers.3 Further, worldwide, more than 796 million people, or about 15% of the global population, cannot read.4 Having a dog to read to may make a notable difference, however, as reading to a pooch proved to be far more engaging to children than reading without a dog.

The study involved 17 children in grades 1 to 3, who were tested to determine their reading ability. The researchers then selected reading material that would be slightly challenging for the children. During the study, the children either read aloud to a dog, a human observer or in a setting without a dog.

After reading a selection of text, the children had the option of stopping or going on to read another passage. The presence of a therapy dog had a positive effect on the children’s motivation to read and their level of persistence when reading something challenging.5

“Specifically, children confirmed feeling significantly more interested and more competent when reading in the presence (versus absence) of a therapy dog,” the researchers explained.6 The children also spent significantly more time reading when a therapy dog was present.

As Rousseau explained, “The findings showed that children spent 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.”7

While other studies have also looked at dogs’ influence on reading, this study was unique in that it carefully selected challenging reading pieces to the children, which could lead to an even greater sense of accomplishment and opportunity for greater achievement among the children.

The findings are so promising that the researchers suggested that the development of a “gold-standard canine-assisted intervention” program could be beneficial for struggling young readers.8

Children Benefit From Reading to Dogs

Programs advocating the benefits of children reading to dogs have been around since at least 1999, with the establishment of Intermountain Therapy Animals’ Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ). READ’s mission is to build and encourage children’s love of books and the reading environment.

It first started out bringing therapy dogs to libraries and has since branched out to working in school settings, where students are able to spend one-on-one time reading to a dog on a weekly basis.

“Each child spends about a half-hour with his dog-a few minutes getting acquainted and comfortable; time reading; then a few minutes at the end for tricks and treats and less formal play. They often sit together on the floor with big pillows, the dog sits or lies nearby, usually with some physical connection between dog and child, and we see what unfolds,” READ notes.9

The organization describes dogs as excellent vehicles for communication. “The handler can say, for instance, ‘Rover has never heard that word before, Jimmy, can you tell him what it means?’” READ explains.10 The dogs may make the reading environment fun by helping to turn pages with his paw or nose, or the child may give the dog a treat after reading a set number of pages.

“The child is usually petting and stroking the dog while he is reading, which induces relaxation and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. And before you know it, the child forgets how hard he thinks reading is and starts to look forward to it,” READ adds.11

Indeed, in 2016, researchers also looked into the benefits of children reading to dogs. They conducted a systematic review of available literature, published in PLOS One, which suggested that reading to a dog has a positive effect on behavioral processes that in turn lead to benefits to the reading environment that culminate in improved reading performance.12

In addition to reducing blood pressure, reading to dogs may help children read by increasing their relaxation and confidence. They also offer a safe, nonjudgmental environment in which children can practice reading.

“[F]requency of reading is directly related to reading attainment,” researchers of the PLOS One study noted,13 which means that any interventions that increase children’s motivation to read — like reading to a therapy pup — could improve reading successes.

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Children Can Read to Shelter Pets

While the featured study involved therapy dogs as reading buddies, it’s likely that similar benefits may be had from reading with companion animals, including those in shelters. Across the U.S., animal shelters have programs available for children to come in and read to the cats and dogs.

In addition to helping children learn to read, the activity helps to calm frightened shelter dogs and teaches them to trust people again. If this sounds intriguing for your child, contact a local animal shelter to find out if such volunteer activities exist near you — and if not, if they’d be interested in starting them.