Let’s face it: To be afraid of “failure”—and all the laughing, judging, and criticizing that may come with it—is human.
For some students, especially those who are struggling with reading disabilities, reading aloud in front of the class or teacher can bring an overwhelming pressure to perform. Even the smallest of blunders can usher in embarrassment and crush confidence, resulting in a desire to do pretty much anything but read.
The solution? Read to an audience that offers no feedback at all—except, maybe, a slobbery kiss and a wag of the tail.
Enter canine reading programs, which are popping up all over the place as part of a movement to give children a safe and encouraging place to learn a new skill—one that comes without any stress, and actually relieves anxiety by increasing relaxation and lowering blood pressure.
To add to the feel-good feelings, these programs don’t only help the students, but help the dogs—some of which have turbulent pasts—and the volunteers, too. Pretty cool, right?
The Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, called R.E.A.D for short, was launched by Utah’s Intermountain Therapy Animals in 1999 and pairs students with calm, trained service dogs who are more than happy to lend their floppy ears to an afternoon of reading, and programs just like this, such as the Seattle-area’s Reading with Rover, are becoming the norm in schools and libraries across the country.
Armed with a book, children plop down next to their dog—sometimes one-on-one, and sometimes in a group—and read away, often petting and patting the dog as they work through tough-to-tackle words.
There’s no pressure, no time-restraints, and no criticism (as constructive as it may be)—just reading to a friend who happens to be overflowing with unconditional love and covered in fur.
In some programs, simply reading to the dog is the incentive—something the child can anticipate with excitement rather than dread. In others, students are encouraged with incentives such as books “pawtographed” (so punny!) by their therapy dog—seriously, a stamped paw print—which they earn after reading 10 books.
A study conducted by the University of California found that children who read with a therapy dog improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week
program compared to students who didn’t. But reading wasn’t the only skill area that made obvious strides. Confidence in reading skills crosses into other subjects, while self-esteem grows and communication and social skills blossom. Even attendance improves.
Dog reading programs also help students who are wary or fearful of dogs develop a better understanding of their newfound furry friends and overcome those fears—just another added benefit of the program.
The learning doesn’t stop in the classroom, either. Students who have dogs—or cats, turtles, fish, etc.—go home excited to read to their pets, which means they’re getting a whole lot of practice they may not have gotten otherwise. That’s something we can definitely get behind.
Think your dog has what it takes to be a reading dog? Interested in volunteering? Check your local schools and libraries for volunteer opportunities, or consider starting your own program.
Top image via Flickr/Howard County Library System