Can your dog or cat help a child learn to read better?

Early this morning ─ really early ─ BJ the cat[1] sprawls across my collarbone peering into my face, “vocalizing.” Her meows grow louder which can only mean one thing: “get up, I’m hungry, can’t you hear me?” BJ is mostly deaf from advancing age. I’m convinced she has no idea how loud she is. As she tunes up the MEOW volume, I shuffle downstairs to get the food bowl ready ─run water in the faucet until it’s hot enough to mix with her canned food to make warm gravy. She watches quietly next to her tan placemat on the kitchen floor. As I put the food bowl on her placemat, she vocalizes soft mewings that I interpret as, “I’m happy to just about be getting my food.” Then there’s quiet while she laps the gravy. Next, a visit to the water bowl followed by stretching. Finally, a trip to the window seat where she waits for the sun to stream in for a morning sunbath.

BJ is 20 years + some months old. In her senior years, she seems to have more to comment on than ever before ─she did not vocalize much when she was younger. She never has been the kind of cat who might sit and listen contentedly, for example, to a child reading out loud. Why you ask would I even expect her to do this?

Well, I learned recently that some cats do –that animal therapy teams throughout the country are joining forces to listen to children read. So I’m looking at BJ through new eyes. Could we be a therapy team – go to schools and libraries and help children learn to read better? Nope, not BJ the cat and me. And truth be told, it’s primarily dogs who participate in these programs. I learned this from looking at the pictures of therapy teams posted on the Internet – from animal assistance reading programs in Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Delaware, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Puget Sound.

So now I’m wondering how to get my therapy team together ─ join forces with a dog (or mellow cat) to participate in one of these programs because the data shows they are really helping children learn to read better. And children, schools, and animal therapy teams alike are saying it’s fun!

What do these programs look like? In an article for The Bark, [2] Anita Stone explains: “For each session, the dog and the child-tutor settle down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor in a corner of the school media center or in the library. Either the dog picks out a book or the child selects a picture book, brings it to the dog, holds it flat and begins to read. Though the children believe they are teaching dogs to read, in fact, with the dog as a comfortable, attentive audience (and an occasional gentle assist from the dog’s adult volunteer partner), they are actually teaching themselves. As far as the child is concerned, however, reading is about the dog, not about the child. No pressure. No embarrassment. No humiliation.”

Stone provides some good history about these programs. “Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) was among the first to use “reading dogs” in the classroom. Launched in 1999 by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, the program was introduced in a Salt Lake City library … and a year later, successfully moved into the school system. READ dogs are trained, registered and certified therapy animals who serve as classroom reading tutors, assisting children with their quiet presence and helping them develop a love of reading.”

Many other programs around the country have followed suit. For example, a psychologist volunteering with Helping Paws International, collaborated with Intermountain to create a therapy assistance program called BARKS (“Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety”) in Durham County, North Carolina. By 2002, the program had accepted and trained several breeds of dogs, and the demand from schools waiting to participate has grown significantly. BARKS dogs act as partners in 30-minute weekly reading sessions with elementary school children. “Helping Paws International” has also been successful in working with autistic children in North Carolina, and many teams are now operating in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

“Sit Stay Read!” was established in the Chicago area more than a decade ago by an owner of a dog training school. The Chicago program worked with teachers, reading specialists and literacy experts to establish a program focusing on reading fluency with second- and third-graders of low-income communities. One volunteer team (human + dog) works with groups of four children. The program started with four schools but quickly found some 40 schools were on the waiting list. The results have been really positive. Fluency test results show reading acceleration to 24 words per minute, versus 9 words per minute for children not involved with the program. And both the attendance of children and their attitude in the classroom have improved.

The Reading With Rover![3] literacy program places volunteers in the schools, bookstores and libraries of the Puget Sound area of Washington State to help with literacy programs. I especially enjoyed the testimonials (“woof” reviews) at their website. Here are a few:

  • It’s always been a struggle to get my child to read each day. I’ve never seemed to be able to find the right topics to draw him in. Reading with Rover has been a HUGE help! My son will read almost any kind of book during Reading with Rover, and he wants to read for the entire hour! This is so different from how he is at home. I highly recommend this program for any child who is not a fan of reading! ─ Jessica
  • My granddaughter is in love with your program! And when I was first introduced to it at Third Place Books last month, I totally understood her delight and enthusiasm. In the 40 years that I’ve been involved with education, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more exciting and rewarding program. I had tears in my eyes as I walked around and watched the various children read to these wonderful dogs! I have told anyone who will listen about it! I applaud all of your special efforts to make this so magical! ─ Jennifer C
  • Wow, was it a hit!!! Nate had a blast. Read to 5 dogs and finished 2 whole books. He was so proud of himself. He talked about the dogs all the way home. He is also trying to figure out how our unruly dog, Norton, could be a Reading with Rover dog. When we explained that Norton didn’t behave well enough to be around all those other dogs, he kept thinking. He’s now convinced we can start our own Reading with Rover at home with the neighborhood kids! I had to laugh. That should be funny. Thank you  ─ Shay H

All of these programs (there are many described on the Internet) report success in helping children learning to read. The biggest problem they seem to share is how to find more animal assistance teams.

So, what does it take for a dog (or cat even) to make a good therapy animal? These programs generally require registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament. And training for the human that accompanies the dog for the reading sessions is needed as well; for example, what to say to the child when Rover falls asleep while the child is reading to him.

A report on these types of reading assistance programs by ABC news a few years ago[4] highlighted researchers at the University of California, Davis, who confirmed that children who read to a dog really do perform better. They found that young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement. For young kids, one of the big challenges in learning to read is the embarrassment of making mistakes. Reading to dogs provides a simple solution — a non-judgmental, comforting furry friend who “listens” and takes the pressure off a child as he stumbles.

So, with the research suggesting that animals can help children learn to read better, I’m hoping that other lovers of animals will look into these programs to help meet the growing demand for animal therapy teams.

I wish that BJ the cat could listen to children read but she’s doing too much of her own talking to be a good listener these days. My plan, therefore, is to look for a dog with the right temperament to be my partner in one of these programs in the future.

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[1] Subject of one of the Z House stories: “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.”

[2]“Reading” Dogs Help Children Learn By lending an ear at story time: http://thebark.com/content/reading-dogs-help-children-learn

[3] http://www.readingwithrover.org/

[4] Report: Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort to Students. Study: Reading to Dogs Helps Children Learn to Read. http://abcnews.go.com/WN/study-dogs-children-learn-read/story?id=11428770

 

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