Kids, dogs and a good book are a great combination, according to US researchers—and they have the data to back it up.
It has been recognised anecdotally that children become better readers when they regularly read aloud to dogs, and many animal organisations and libraries around the world have developed reading programs that pair up kids and dogs.
An example in the US is the All Ears Reading Program, an animal-assisted therapy program developed by St. Louis Cardinals baseball manager Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation of Walnut Creek.
Hoping to collect scientific data related to the observed successes of reading-to-dogs programs, the foundation and researchers from the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, decided to collaborate on two studies.
The first explored changes in reading skills among third graders in a public school and the second study focused on home-schooled students.
Researchers found that the kids’ reading fluency improved by 12 per cent in the first study and by 30 per cent in the second study.
In both studies, the children read regularly to three shelter-rescued dogs, Lollipop, Molly and Digory, provided by the Animal Rescue Foundation.
In the second study, the home-schooled children visited the Davis campus weekly with their parents for 10 weeks. During those visits, each child read aloud to one of the dogs for 15 to 20 minutes.
“I feel relaxed when I am reading to a dog because I am having fun,” one child told researchers.
“The dogs don’t care if you read really, really bad so you just keep going,” said another.
Moreoever, 75 per cent of the parents reported that their children read aloud more frequently and with greater confidence after the study was completed.
The researchers suspect that the patient, non-judgmental attention that the dogs offer is key to bringing about the changes in the kids’ attitudes toward reading.
“The dogs, in contrast to a human, don’t judge the individual, aren’t grading the individual, and hopefully that allows the children to build some confidence in their reading skills,” said Martin Smith, a veterinary school science educator and lead researcher on the study.
There are a number of programs around Australia that provide or train therapy dogs to help children learn how to read, while also building empathy and lowering anxiety. They include:
Story Dogs: A literacy program with hundreds of teams around Australia.
Delta Classroom Canines: A program providing schools with weekly dog visits.
Share Reading Dogs Program: Run by Animal Welfare League Queensland, this program facilitates regular dog visits to schools.