How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed In the Classroom is an innovative, expanded version of Dr. Lori Friesen’s award-winning doctoral research. Pictured here on the left with her two dogs, Sparky (grey) and Tango (white), Dr. Lori completed her PhD in Education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and taught elementary school for ten years in Canada, Hong Kong and Japan. Dr. Lori has served as Co-president of the Canadian Committee of Graduate Students in Education, Co-president of the Elementary Education Graduate Students’ Association at the University of Alberta, Chair of the Canadian Committee of Graduate Students in Education Mentorship Award, and as Chair of Graduate Student Representatives for the Language and Literacy Researchers of Canada.
Dr. Lori’s passion is inspiring children to become better human beings through deepened empathy and compassion in their interactions with animals and each other while becoming stronger readers. She has served as a volunteer for the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta and founded the Paws to Read with Tango animal-assisted literacy summer program at the Stanley A. Milner Public Library in Edmonton, Alberta. She was awarded the Government of Alberta Graduate Citizenship Award, the University of Alberta Graduate Student Community Service Award, and the Virginia Cummings Bursary for her dedication and service in her community.
In 2011, Dr. Lori was inducted into the Golden Key International Honor Society in recognition of her outstanding academic achievement and excellence. Her doctoral research, in which she explored how one class of grade 2 children experienced an animal-assisted literacy program, was awarded a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) Doctoral Fellowship, the Isaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, the University of Alberta Doctoral Prize of Distinction, the Alberta Teachers’ Association Doctoral Fellowship, and the University of Alberta Ph.D. Recruitment Scholarship.
Dr. Lori’s research examining the child-animal bond in reading dog programs has received media attention around the world. Her work in animal-assisted literacy has been published in various peer-reviewed journals, including Early Childhood Education, Learning Landscapes, Language & Literacy, Childhood Education International, and most recently in The International Journal of Learning. She has also published articles in many trade magazines, including The Alberta Teacher’s Association, and her work has recently been featured as the cover story for The Latham Letter. Dr. Lori’s M.Ed. work has also been published as a book, The Beginning Teacher’s Handbook for Elementary School (2008).
When I was only seven years old, I spent a good part of my time following my parents around begging for a puppy. After several months of constant torment, they finally relented due to an entirely unforeseen chain of events. At a time when rescuing dogs from shelters was virtually unheard of, and because our family did not have much money, buying a pure-bred poodle for their mildly allergic daughter was simply out of the question. But half-way across the country, due to an event involving my aunt’s pure-bred poodle and a stray in the back alley, our relatives were now struggling with what they might do with a litter of puppies born of mixed heritage. After examining the litter, my parents decided that one of the puppies just might do. A small white ball of fur with soft brown spots and big dark eyes, his name was Patches.
Because my dad was in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, (R.C.M.P.), our family moved around a lot when I was growing up. The year I was in second grade, Patches was my only friend in a new town. When I came home from school each day during those first lonely few months, my younger brother Chris wasn’t much interested in playing dolls or Barbies with me. So for hours, Patches would let me dress him up in my doll’s clothes. Every now and then he would wander off with his ears artfully tied in a high pony tail, pearls hanging around his neck, but would always come back, tail wagging, for more play and a belly rub. He played his role in whatever version of Lady and the Tramp or other Disney movie I wanted to re-enact or re-imagine, and he watched patiently as I spent hours practicing spelling words in front of him in preparation for our class spelling bee. Summer camping trips meant hours snuggled up with Patches under the covers as I read Archie & Veronica comic books with a flashlight deep into the night, and he taught me the meaning of patience as I tried to convince him to walk with a leash. Being the oldest child, I immediately seemed to feel as though it was my role to take care of Patches, and he responded to my affection with love and loyalty. He followed me everywhere, my personal shadow of happiness and love.
As I got older, my allergies never really went away, but the idea of ‘getting rid of’ Patches was never an option. I think my parents knew that to lose him would be devastating for me. As I became a self-absorbed teen-ager, Patches was there when I came home sobbing from a mean note my friends had written about me. He let me hold him and licked the tears away as they streamed down my face, and he stayed close by my side until I calmed down enough to sleep. He listened with his head cocked to one side as I practiced my grade 10 social studies presentation, and he featured in my grade 12 writing assignment about (People) I Admire. I remember feeling guilty that when I left to go backpacking in Australia after I finished grade 12, I cried hardest when it came time to say good-bye to Patches. I understand now that this was because I felt like he needed me even more than I needed him, and that he just couldn’t understand why I would leave. I also knew that, given the choice, he would never leave me.
When I came home more than a year later, Patches’ little body had given in to age and was so riddled with pain that it was clear we had to help him to end his suffering. I held him in my arms as he was euthanized, and even now, nearly 20 years later, I can barely write this sentence through my tears as I remember that moment. It is only now that I am beginning to understand the role he played in my development and in the fabric of my life. In my adult life, I have worked with numerous children as a classroom teacher, as a researcher, and as a community volunteer, and I am struck by the seemingly instantaneous bond that many children have with animals.
As is illustrated above, my childhood was filled with memories of imaginative moments engaged in meaningful literacy experiences with my dog, yet many people may not recognize this at first glance. This is because in the United States, we have been socialized to think of ‘literacy’ as being defined as ‘reading’ rather than understanding literacy as, at minimum, the six integrated language arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and representing. In schools, we have chosen to compartmentalize and isolate these skills. Reading books I love for hours into the night with my dog as my faithful friend, his serving as the meaningful subject of my writing (and they continue to be, even now), his unconditional support as I practiced my oral speaking skills in preparation for my class presentation, and our imaginative play in which we re-presented and re-enacted my favorite movies were all at-home literacy activities in which we spontaneously engaged in.
The depth of my feelings for Patches is reflected in how difficult it was for me to consider getting another dog. It took me seven years to even consider this possibility. Ironically, the year I felt that I might be ready was the same year that I began teaching elementary school. My new dog’s name was Tango, a little white Maltese-poodle, and she was a gift from my new husband. As I introduced her into our lives and let her into my heart, I also felt drawn to share her with my students. My grade two students, who were the same age as I was when I first got Patches, were thrilled and delighted the first time I brought Tango into our classroom. In fact, bringing her into our classroom became somewhat of a tradition; my students and I negotiated a contract that if they could earn the words “Tango Time” by being kind and respectful to each other throughout the week, I would promise to bring Tango into our classroom on Friday mornings – and this is when the magic began…
I began searching for organizations that might be doing something similar with animals and children in other classrooms. I came across The Intermountain Therapy Animals Association and their Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program established in Utah, U.S.A. in November of 1999. The mission of this organization is to “improve the literacy skills of children in a unique approach employing a classic concept: reading with a dog.” I was in the midst of organizing an after-school program for our school when our district’s rules changed; no more animals would be allowed in classrooms. I taught at the same school for the next seven years and so I never had an opportunity to bring dogs into my classroom again (except on rare occasions), but I couldn’t get the experiences I had had with my students out of my mind.
I continued to explore these programs and soon learned that there were animal-assisted literacy programs not only running in nearly every state across the U.S., but as is highlighted on the Land of Pure Gold Foundation website, these programs were becoming increasingly popular in Canada, in Italy, in Australia, India, in the U.K., Spain, Sweden, Finland, South Africa, and Slovenia. Perhaps most surprising was when I discovered the relatively new Professor Paws animal-assisted literacy program in schools in Guangzhou, China. Having lived in Hong Kong for two years, I understood that dogs in this region were commonly viewed as a food source. Something deep inside told me that I needed to continue to learn more about these programs.
For some reason, now haunted by a multitude of moments I had observed with my own students and Tango, I simply couldn’t let it go.
During my eighth year of teaching elementary school, I was asked to teach pre-service Education courses for the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. I had just published The Beginning Teacher’s Handbook for Elementary School and so much of what I had written explored creative ways for engaging and inspiring students to learn. Now, my mind raced with the many innovative ways that reading with dogs might ignite students’ imaginations and passion for learning. I still remember the sentence I wrote in my PhD application for the University of Alberta – it sends chills down my spine, even now: “It would mean the fulfillment of a dream to explore animal-assisted literacy learning (reading with dogs) programs with children as the focus of my doctoral research.”
That application resulted in an invitation to begin my doctoral program, supported by two very generous recruitment scholarships. I know it sounds corny but on some fundamental level I felt the universe align – and I began to realize that I was truly on the right path to making a real difference in children’s lives. Pursuing my PhD provided opportunities to consider deeply why reading dog programs were not only becoming increasingly popular with children around the globe, but allowed me to examine that nagging feeling deep inside that told me that beyond being fun, they might be serving a crucial purpose in children’s lives.
Five years later, How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed In the Classroom is my answer. This program is a piece of my contribution to the larger conversation about understanding and nurturing the human-animal bond. It is my offer of help for what we can do to inspire children to love reading while valuing their connection with each other and with the natural world they will inherit. Together, we can help children to rediscover joy, purpose, and love of reading during valuable moments in connection with each other and with animals.