I have seen a lot of programs at our local libraries recently in which children read to therapy dogs. Basically, dogs are trained as listeners. They are taught to be calm around children of all ages and abilities, to sit quietly, and to be patient. They are then taken to participating libraries and schools. Children are either selected or volunteer to read to the dogs for a few minutes (the times vary according to the ages and abilities of the children).
The children are chosen for a variety of reasons. One of the most obvious reasons I can identify is for a child who is shy in the classroom to be able to practice reading in front of a nonjudgmental audience- a dog. If you have difficulties reading, you’re probably not going to be eager to try your hand at reading in front of your (potentially critical) classmates. Dogs, on the other hand, are eager to sit and listen to you read without becoming exasperated each time you make a mistake, and they don’t tease you for mispronouncing a word. Many of the articles I’ve come across identified an increase in confidence in the children. As a former shy kid, I can completely understand the appeal of reading to a dog as compared to reading in front of other humans.
As a psychologist who specialized in special education evaluations and children, I’m interested in the research behind this program. Sure, kids are confident, but does it actually help with reading skills? There has been very little research on these programs. Some of the studies, however, have shown an improvement in fluency (how quickly you can read the words). Reading fluency is one of the building blocks for strong reading. If you are spending your time trying to sound out words, you lose the meaning of the sentence or paragraph. So, if this improves fluency, it might be an effective intervention.
One of the other building blocks for strong reading is comprehension. Reading aloud has been linked to increased reading comprehension. (If you’re interested in reading more or you want resources for increasing reading abilities, Reading Rockets is a fantastic site to help young readers.) In addition, children who are not strong readers are reluctant to read aloud and have lower motivation to practice their reading. So, including a motivating aspect such as a dog might increase a child’s willingness to practice and, hence, their overall reading abilities. One study found that children in a typical reading practice group had a decrease in positive attitudes toward reading after their study was complete. However, the kids in a dog reading group maintained their attitude towards reading. So, while it didn’t necessarily make them more positive about reading, it didn’t hurt.
As a huge dog and book lover when I was younger, I would have loved this program. I probably would’ve worked hard to earn time reading to the dog. It just seems fun and it seems much more fun than reading in a group or completing reading quizzes. Has anyone had any experience with these programs? Has anyone seen any research about whether these programs actually help to improve reading abilities? What are your thoughts?