Children Read Aloud to Therapy Dogs to Boost Literacy Skills & Confidence

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Sometimes, you just need a helping paw when learning to read, and that’s exactly the mission behind programs all over the world that pair children with therapy dogs for reading practice.

 

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The first organization to do this was Intermountain Therapy Animals with its Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program. Founded in 1999, the mission of the READ program is to “improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of registered therapy teams as literacy mentors.” Since the program’s start in Salt Lake City, Utah, it has now grown to include more than 3,500 registered therapy dog teams in the United States, Europe, and South Africa.

 

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Here’s how it works: a dog plus the dog’s handler first must become a therapy dog team. Next, the team receives special training in literacy support and safe handling around children. Then the team, in partnership with schools, libraries, and other organizations, ventures out into the community to provide a nonjudgmental space for children to practice reading.

Judi Anderson-Wright, the founder of Seattle’s Project Canine, has been involved in training therapy dogs for well over a decade. She defines a therapy dog thusly: “A pet dog that has a fabulous relationship with its person who goes into the community to share kindness, compassion and the joy of being with an animal.”

Anderson-Wright calls therapy dogs exceptional animals who really enjoy being around people and can also handle the rigors of doing the various tasks therapy dogs are called upon to perform.

It was while working with her therapy dog Opie, a Jack Russell Terrier, that Anderson-Wright realized how much children loved talking to her partner. It was this relationship, plus her background in education, that inspired Anderson-Wright to establish Bow Wows and Books based on the READ curriculum.

“He was the muse and mentor for most everything that Project Canine has started,” Anderson-Wright says about Opie, who made therapy dog visits until he was 16.

 

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Therapy dog teams who become part of Bow Wows and Books visit branches of the Seattle Public Library to provide opportunities for young readers to practice reading aloud to dogs.

Bow Wows and Books runs an hour-long program that rotates through various library branches. The libraries donate a space that can hold six to eight dogs. Dogs sit with children on blankets on the floor. Rules are posted – the number one rule is to be respectful to the dog.

One therapy dog, a greyhound, lays on his mat and falls asleep. The children are told he’s concentrating so hard he had to close his eyes. Other therapy dogs can turn pages, and some have been trained to track a child’s finger across the page so it looks like the dog is actually reading along with the child.

 

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The benefits of programs like READ and Bow Wows and Books are still being studied, but anecdotal evidence abounds suggesting that reading to dogs helps children make positive associations around reading out loud. A literature review published in 2016 notes that “improving reading motivation improves reading performance indicating that if children are more motivated to read with a dog then this could improve their reading abilities. This may be especially important for students who struggle to read because poor reading abilities are also associated with low reading motivation.”

 

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Proponents of reading to dogs also suggest that these programs increase relaxation and help lower blood pressure, providing a safe and calm environment for children to practice their skills.

The silent companionship of a dog as a reading partner may allow the child to work at their own pace through reading challenges without fear of being judged,” the 2016 literature review notes.

Anderson-Wright says she would love to secure funding to study the benefits of programs like Bow Wows and Books because she has witnessed firsthand how dogs help children grow into better readers. Specifically, she has seen measurable improvements in a child’s sense of self, their willingness to read, and their delight in opening a book.

 

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She tells one story about an 11-year-old boy who refused to read aloud in his classroom. The young boy’s father said his son felt humiliated. They came to three Bow Wows and Books sessions, and the child sat and read silently to the therapy dog. On the fourth visit, he started reading out loud. Anderson-Wright looked over at the father and he was sobbing.

Just let the child be with the dog and let the dog work the magic,” Anderson-Wright says.

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AuthorAmy

Veteran Member

I am an unrepentant lover of words - and lucky me, I spend all day, every day immersed in them. When I'm not teaching, I'm reading. Or writing. Or teaching eager (and sometimes not-so-eager) adolescents about the power of the written word. I live on the scenic Oregon Coast with my dog, two cats, and five-year-old son.

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