How Reading to Dogs Helps Kids’ Literacy in America
By Ali Thompson
Reading is a crucial skill to success in school—and ultimately in life. When children are late in learning to read, it can set back their entire educational path.
To help strengthen literacy skills, many schools and after school programs have found a creative way to encourage kids to practice reading: They bring in dogs.
Kids enjoy reading to dogs because if they mess up a word, dogs won’t respond with judgment. It’s a calm, relaxing experience to read to a dog. With no human listening, the pressure is off. No one is making them feel embarrassed, or rushing them as they struggle with a word. In some cases, like the Good Dog Foundation in Brooklyn, kids even believe they’re teaching the dogs to read. Even if kids don’t believe that, they do automatically take on more of a teacher-type role, which is empowering.
This learning strategy dates back to at least 1999, when the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program was launched in a Utah library. Due to its success, READ became a school-based effort to help kids read and has grown outside of Utah.
READ has many anecdotal success stories, including one girl who could hardly read. At first she made excuses about why she couldn’t read, even to a dog. But with some coaxing, she picked out a 32-page picture book. 45 minutes later, she’d read the book to the dog, who never judged her slow reading. She said, “Oh my! I’m finished—I’ve never read a whole book before, ever in my life!”
But beyond anecdotal information, sample studies of READ have been consistent in revealing that students’ literacy skills and motivation increase by reading to dogs. Teachers report more confidence in kids’ reading skills as they move through the program.
Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals, which runs a division of the READ program, says kids who read to therapy dogs for 20 minutes a week can improve their reading level by a couple grade levels over the year. She’s even seen as much as a four-year improvement in reading level over the course of one school year.
Klotz has also observed other changes, beyond increased literacy and test scores. She sees kids speaking up in class, volunteering to help, and completing homework. Their school attendance improves. Essentially, reading to kids can make kids more confident and engaged in all areas of their education.
Another organization, Therapy Dogs International (TDI), has a “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” program where students read to dogs. One principal they interviewed said that under the program “children flourished, with reading scores going up.”
In most literacy programs, kids read to certified therapy dogs, who will be more likely to keep a calm demeanor as kids read. But animal shelters have begun to pick up on the trend, too. The Humane Society of Missouri is one example of a shelter-based program where kids come to read to dogs. This benefits everyone! Kids can still practice reading, but the dogs also benefit as they adjust to people. This can prepare them for finding their forever homes. When prospective adopters visit, the dogs are friendlier and more used to people being around.
Through this program, the Humane Society of Missouri has seen their average length of shelter stay drop to 8 days per dog. Kids love being a part of this cause as they practice their reading.
It makes sense that reading can help dogs increase their people skills, when you look at a study that shows how listening to even just audiobooks can calm shelter dogs down. Simply the sound of a human voice—even without a human present—created calmer behaviors than any kind of music.
That calm feeling can be mutual. Spending time with a dog boosts oxytocin, a feel-good chemical in our brains. Petting a dog can reduce blood pressure and heart rate. So when kids read to dogs, they feel happier and calmer right from the start.
There’s a new development in reading to dogs that could change the shape of literacy growth even more. A company called Waggity Tales sells customized books, personalized with dogs’ names and words each specific dog knows. If kids begin to read these books to dogs—whether therapy dogs or their own pets—they’ll see the dog respond with head tilts and other signs of engagement. That can provide additional reinforcement that the dog is interested in what they’re reading. Visit waggitytales.com for more information.