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Dogs Helping Children Read

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Photo credit: robotpolisher / Flickr

In libraries and schools across the country, dogs are taking on the job of being a reading helper for young children just learning how to sound out words and explore phonics.

It’s a role well-suited to their traditional job as a kid’s companion and a man’s best friend, and it is especially beneficial for slow readers and shy children who might not want to work on their reading skills with an adult or another kid. The trend began in 1999 in Salt Lake City, Utah with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, and it has expanded to other states and countries since then.

Dogs Make Great Listeners

When kids are learning to read, corrections from teachers and ridicule from other kids in class can hamper the learning process. Dogs, on the other hand, attentively listen to the young reader sound out the words without making judgments about any errors or mistakes the child makes.

Reading to a dog is extremely successful at building reading skills, according to a 2010 study done at UC Davis. In the study, kids who read to a dog had a 12 to 30 percent improvement in reading fluency after 10 once-per-week canine-assisted reading sessions.

The Benefits of Reading With Dogs

Kids who are having trouble learning to read often feel self-conscious about falling behind in a skill that their peers seem to be mastering effortlessly. Reading aloud to a dog helps these kids build confidence. Plus, getting to spend time with a dog is excellent motivation for discouraged readers, who might otherwise avoid practicing their reading skills.

In addition to getting uninterrupted practice time, kids also get other benefits from reading to dogs. Simply spending time with a dog reduces stress levels and modulates the biological results of stress. Kids feel more relaxed after spending time with a dog, and being free of stress makes memorizing new words much easier.

How Dog Therapy Reading Sessions Work

Library and school sessions with a trained reading therapy dog usually last about 15 to 20 minutes; enough time for the child to get through a story or book, but not so long that both child and animal get tired or bored.

Volunteers or staff are typically on hand to offer help in case kids need to find an unfamiliar word in the dictionary, and the dog’s owner or handler is on-site as well.

Training Dogs to Help Kids Read

The dogs who get involved with reading programs aren’t just your typical everyday pet. These dogs train alongside their handlers to do this job. A big part of training involves learning to remain calm and in one place during a reading session.

Dogs that participate in a reading program have to be even-tempered, and dogs who bite or growl are excluded. Owners or handlers must participate in the training program with their dogs, and they must be willing to stay on-site at the library or school during each reading session.

The ability to read is essential for survival in the modern world, and programs that use dogs to help kids learn this skill help set those children up for future success. Beyond the practical aspects, turning reading into a fun activity instead of a constant struggle makes kids more likely to read for pleasure both during childhood and later in life.


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