How heedful hounds are helping children break through literacy barriers
Most dog owners will attest to the benefits of having a pow-wow with your bow-wow. For struggling readers however, reading aloud to a friendly and calm audience (floppy ears and wagging tails included!) can be just the ticket for getting past anxiety around reading.
Why it works
For many beginning readers, the act of reading aloud can be intimidating. Adults are often quick to correct or prompt as kids read. This is understandable and often helpful, but it can cause feelings of anxiety and self consciousness. Dogs, however, are great listeners and they don’t mind a few oral stumbles.
Always interested and never judgemental, dogs also love the attention and extra pats they get from small hands. They even seem to love listening to stories! In fact, there have been dogs who manage to learn a few words through the act of being a reading buddy. One clever Labrador in the UK reportedly learned to recognise commands written on flashcards after serving as a reading dog for some years.
Instead of an emergent reader seeing it as a difficult but necessary chore, reading to a dog feels like fun. What’s more, the presence of an animal can lower blood pressure and promote relaxation, making animals ideal reading companions for young learners. Some long-running programmes such as Story Dogs in Australia, report big gains in engagement and confidence in reading, as well as improvements in reading fluency.
Regular reading to a calm canine may help the child to see reading in a positive light – even when there are no pups to tell tales to.
How it works
Ruff and ready reading buddies are assessed for suitability by an approved animal behaviourist or dog trainer before being brought into libraries and schools to meet with reluctant readers. Children will often be chosen by their teachers to participate in the programme, which is seen as a special treat.
The dog’s owner will bring them in on a lead and introduce them to the children, who will be allowed to pet the dog and get to know them. Then, quite simply, the child will be asked to sit with the dog and read them a story. Sometimes, dogs will appear to listen carefully and even react to certain words (‘walk’ or ‘food’ for example!) Other times, they may fall asleep or cuddle up the child which can be a calming experience.
For neurodiverse children, the act of petting the dog can be especially soothing and can be the salve needed to open them up to the act of reading.
Usually, the owner will stay with the dog during the reading time but will try not to interrupt or interfere with the storytelling. The relationship between the dog and the child is the focus.
The ideal reading partner
Could your dog be ready for school? Often, reading assistance dogs are also certified Therapy Dogs, bred and trained specifically for this kind of work. However, if your dog is a happy hound who loves kids and books, they could just pass the test and become a Reading Buddy for a programme such as Outreach Therapy Pets’ Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ).
Delivered by St John, this community service programme places volunteers and their animal companions in schools throughout New Zealand. It was first introduced in 1998 by the SPCA’s Bob Kerridge and his late wife Iris, who became inspired to start it after seeing the successes of a similar programme in San Francisco.
A specialist will assess your dog for behaviour and obedience, checking to see the level of rapport between owner and animal, as well as the level of control the dog has in high-energy places. They will be looking for friendly dogs that like people but manage to stay calm and well behaved in noisy and active environments.
How to get involved
If you have a calm and kid-loving canine, you may like to volunteer to help out. Organisations like Canine Friends Pet Therapy can assist in the assessment and training of your pup.
To find out more about volunteering with Outreach Therapy Pets and their READ programme, email: CHSAdmin@stjohn.org.nz and get ready to share your dog’s amazing attitude with some keen kids near you.