When therapy or service dogs come to mind, you’re likely thinking about an animal that helps a disabled individual carry out everyday tasks like navigating through the world or warning of danger. Therapy dogs have varied roles though and can help children in largely, unexpected ways, such as, learning to read.
According to the World Literacy Foundation, more than 796 million people are completely or functionally illiterate, costing the global economy $1.2 Trillion in 2015. Therapy dogs who help children read serve the vital function of working to eradicate these sombering figures. Your next question may be how does a therapy dog help?
How Dogs Help Children Read
The idea of using therapy dogs to help children read is not new. It was a concept put into action by the organization, Intermountain Therapy Animals, in 1999 with its Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program. Other organizations such as Read2Dogs and Reading with Rover follow a similar approach.
The idea is that having a dog around creates a non-threatening environment for children to read. Children feel less self-conscious about their developing skills in the presence of one whose skills don’t exceed their own. The presence of a therapy dog also encourages social interaction, which reinforce this positive setting. The unconditional love that a dog provides certainly helps the learning process.
The READ program has trained over 3,500 teams of therapy handlers and therapy dogs within the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries in Europe. Not only is the program helping children read but it also fostering a love of books that can encourage a love for lifetime learning.
A Positive Distraction
Therapy dogs provide a positive distraction. For children learning to read, the presence of the therapy dog can help them overcome the negative experiences like teasing, bullying, or even inadequacy that a child may have come to associate with the act of reading out loud. The presence of a therapy dog draws the focus away from minor mistakes that a child learning to read may make, allowing the child to practice and hone their skill.
The presence of a dog in the classroom builds on the natural inclination people have to be around other living things. Providing a common ground for both children and adults to interact, a therapy dog becomes the common connection. A dog can have even more positive affects on those present. The study “Effects of Social Support by a Dog on Stress Modulation in Male Children with Insecure Attachment” by Beats, Julius, Turner, and Kotrschal found that a dog’s presence can help children overcome stress and insecurity better than adults interventions.
Therapy dogs act as a go-between in the learning process. Children read to dogs while learning this life-necessary skill. Reading to a dog creates a less threatening atmosphere and can be a vital first step where a child feels safe to make mistakes and begins gaining comfort reading aloud. Children benefit from the unconditional love and non-judgmental attitude that therapy dogs bring to a learning environment. For children, that means:
- Less anxiety
- Greater engagement with a therapy dog present
- Increased confidence in the absence of negative feedback
- Greater and better social engagement with peers
It can set a great tone early on so that children may actually enjoy going to school and learning. A good experience with a therapy dog will likely provide a long-lasting impression. School-aged children go through many changes, some of which can be scary for younger ones. A therapy dog can make the school environment less threatening.
Understanding the Process
The study “Children Reading to Dogs: A Systematic Review of the Literature” by Hall, Gee, and Mills explains how the concept of therapy dogs and reading skill development in children works. Researchers identified several positive outcomes that come from getting dogs into the act. The documented effects on reading behavior included:
- Reduced reading anxiety
- Greater reading confidence
- Increased reading motivation
- Improved reading attitude
- Increased social interactions
- Improved self-esteem
- Reduced blood pressure when reading to a dog
It’s obvious that the positive effects resulting from the presence of therapy dogs to encourage reading in children extend beyond simply acquiring the skill. Children learn skills that can help them interact better with others while improving self-esteem. These are the types of outcomes that have far-reaching effects and can affect not only a child’s performance in school, but how the child may gain confidence to succeed later into adolescence and adulthood.
Reading to Dogs
It is commonly known that children often have imaginary friends. It’s often part of the maturing process and aids with learning the skills of relationship building and can be an outlet for emotional issues. Utilizing dogs to help children read is also one way in which we can encourage children to succeed. It begins a positive cycle that benefits the child at the onset.
If a child can learn by reading to a therapy dog, they gain the self-confidence and can take it to the next level. Then, the child can more easily transition to the classroom, taking the skills learned there. Armed with this boost in self-esteem, children who may fear reading out loud have a positive experience on which to build. The important thing is to set children on the right track, positively learning to read from the beginning.
Health Benefits of Therapy Dogs
The benefits are not limited to helping children learn to read and its associated social effects. Children can also gain significant health benefits that extend beyond book learning. An Early Childhood Education Journal article, titled “Canine Visitors: The Influence of Therapy Dogs on Young Children’s Learning and Well-Being in Classrooms and Hospitals,” identified several health effects that may add to the growing list of positive outcomes from using therapy dogs to help kids learn to read.
The effects were extended to positive impacts with measurable results. Among the results that researchers found were:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower anxiety levels
- Lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol
The Future of Therapy Dogs and Reading Ability in Children
While evidence is compelling, more rigorous research is ongoing. A lot of anecdotal accounts exist. But organizations like Intermountain Therapy Animals show that therapy dogs can make a difference. Children can gain the confidence to learn to read. This skill has far-reaching effects.
Some research suggests that therapy dogs in these settings can help children with special needs to become more engaged. Children who are struggling while learning to learn may find new hope. For parents, the benefits are priceless.
Not only does it give children an advantage in school, but children also learn skills that will help them succeed in life and become productive members of society. The interaction between a therapy dog and a child has the potential for profound impacts. It starts with an interaction that avoids judgment and guarantees unconditional acceptance.