“Go Dog Go!” said a very enthusiastic first grade girl to her furry faced friend. She was reading a popular children’s book to Ernie, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon dog that seemed enthralled with the story. The little girl hugged and petted Ernie while she read, only stopping to show him the pictures.
Ernie and his lookalike brother Bert both visit at Pine Island Elementary School with their owner, John Fraley. Both dogs are registered therapy animals and love their work.
Reasons in the research
U.C. Davis did a study in 2010 that had a group of children reading to a dog for 10 weeks, once a week for 20 minutes. Another group of children read to an adult in the same controlled environment. At the end of the 10 weeks there was a 12% increase in reading fluency skills for those children that read to a dog, and no improvement in the other group.
Findings supported that reading to a dog may have a positive effect on reading performance and attitudes toward reading, though more comprehensive research was needed.
There are many more benefits that have been reported by teachers, parents and the children in therapy animal reading programs across the country. These anecdotal reports highlight improved self-esteem and self confidence, volunteering to read in class and a new positive interest in reading for many children.
According to the 2010 special report that the Annie E. Casey Foundation published called “Kids Count,” children need to learn to read by third grade for their continued academic success. Many therapy animal reading programs target the early childhood grades.
Although there’s not much research yet on the topic, it is likely that reading to species other than dogs is also beneficial. Regardless, research shows petting any warm blooded animal can lower your blood pressure and reduce anxiety, which supports the reading setting.
Read to a rabbit. Or llama.
The following species can be registered as therapy animals and volunteer in the community: dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, certain birds, miniature pigs, alpacas, llamas and miniature horses/donkeys.
If you have an animal that is well behaved around other animals, loves people (especially children) and has been well handled and trained in obedience, you could make a difference in a child’s life by reading with them.
There are three steps to becoming a reading team (handler and animal):
1. Live with or own an animal that is one of the nine approved species, and that has an aptitude for therapy work.
2. Train your animal and pass an evaluation with a national organization.
3. Start reading!
Instilling a love of reading
The national R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) Program started in 1999 was the first comprehensive literacy program partnering with dogs. Currently they are in 24 countries and endorse any species that can be registered as a therapy animal team. They offer two workshops a year in the Twin Cities. Visit www.therapyanimals.org for free training videos and other resources.
Many libraries and schools across the country welcome reading with a registered therapy animal. Check with the facility for policies. Most common concerns are addressed with safeguards that have been implemented in thousands of schools. The benefits far outweigh the concerns, especially with improved reading skills—and there is no cost to the facilities.
For families with children at home, how about having them read out loud to the family pet? Find a cozy corner, spread out a blanket for your child and animal to sit on and make it a fun experience. If there are no available pets, have your child read to their favorite stuffed animal instead. Any way you can encourage your child to read, especially to an animal, may help instill a love of reading.
Join the Fun
Are you interested in reading with your dog and children at schools or libraries? Learn about what is involved and how to get started. Already working as a team? Share your experience and network with other teams.
October 24, 7-8:30 p.m.
Paws Abilities Training Center,
1200 Lake Shady Ave. S., Oronoco.
RSVP to Patti: firstname.lastname@example.org
Three established national groups register therapy teams:
Pet Partners, www.petpartners.org
Their reading program is called Read With Me. It includes a downloadable free manual and
webinars. This organization tests dogs and is the only one that will test the eight other species.
Therapy Dogs International, www.tdi-dog.org
Their reading program is called Tail Waggin Tutors
Alliance of Therapy Dogs, www.therapydogs.com
Once you have passed an evaluation and are a member of any one of these three groups, you will have one to two million dollars worth of general liability insurance when you are
volunteering as a therapy animal team.
Patti Anderson, C.P.D.T., is a R.E.A.D. teacher, Pet Partners evaluator and Paws Abilities instructor.