What Happens When Children Read to Dogs
By Joe Wilkes
Lately, there have been a number of programs springing up around the world where young children and older children with learning disabilities have been entered into programs where they have been reading to dogs. Dogs, you say? While our canine brethren have been enthusiasts of running, Frisbee, swimming, and many athletic pursuits, it’s been rare that they’ve been regarded by us humans as any meaningful participant in a literary salon. The vast majority of pooches haven’t even read Old Yeller, The Call of the Wild, or even Marley and Me.
Yet, these four-legged critics are being enlisted to hear recitations of Dr. Seuss, Hans Christian Andersen, and J.K. Rowling in schools and libraries everywhere, where previously they might not even have been let through the door due to various hygiene considerations. So what’s going on?
Studies have begun to show conclusively that children who read to an audience perform much better when the audience is a dog as opposed to an adult human or a group of human peers. The theory is that because the dog (usually a trained therapy dog) is attentive and nonjudgmental, the child feels more comfortable working through any difficulties sounding out the words or assembling the sentences conceptually knowing the dog won’t mock or laugh, but only support.
For children who are beginning to read, or are a little behind developmentally, or suffer from dyslexia, autism, or learning disabilities, an environment with a friendly companion like a professional therapy dog (or even a well-trained family pet) can create a safe atmosphere where they can work out their difficulties but not feel trivialized by classroom peers or fear disapproval of adult authority figures.
The use of dogs to provide encouragement to improve literacy can’t solve all problems associated with learning disabilities. Other educational techniques must be used in conjunction with reading to dogs to help overcome whatever challenges the reader faces. But what can be avoided is the embarrassment of making mistakes in front of others. Dogs relieve the social pressure for the beginning reader to “get it right.” Dogs will enjoy the story even if the words are mispronounced or the delivery is halted. The dog won’t laugh and won’t make wisecracks if the reader makes mistakes. And the dog’s attention and lack of judgment will hopefully help the reader keep moving forward and improving. Studies have shown the improvements in the “dog readers” outshine the ones who don’t read to dogs.
When my nephews were young and learning to read, a common holiday pastime was to ask them to come out and read a book to me. They were usually told for encouragement and aspiration that their uncle made his living reading and writing and he would be really excited to see how good they were (so, no pressure!). And my nephews, who had horsed around with me all day, giggled about everything, and been generally relaxed, sat down on the couch next to me, cracked open a storybook and began to read. They would sit stiffly and read in trembling voices, with fearful glances at me to see if they had said the words correctly. It was painful, like watching a hostage read a prepared statement. I told them not to worry, that I thought they were awesome and you know, I still screwed up words, too. And I think they kind of believed me. But still, I couldn’t say it like a dog could.