What the Research Says: How dogs could make children better readers

How dogs could make children better readers

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Once upon a time…
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Gill Johnson, University of Nottingham

Issues around children learning to read are rarely out of the news. Which is hardly surprising – becoming a successful reader is of paramount importance in improving a child’s life chances. Nor is it surprising that reading creates a virtuous circle: the more you read the better you become. But what may come as a surprise is that reading to dogs is gaining popularity as a way of addressing concerns about children’s reading. The Conversation

There is a lot of research evidence indicating that children who read extensively have greater academic success. The UK Department for Education’s Reading for Pleasure report, published in 2012, highlights this widely established link.

Keith Stanovich, an internationally eminent US literacy scholar (now based in Canada) wrote a widely-cited paper in 1986, describing this virtuous circle as the “Matthew effect” (a reference to the observations made by Jesus in the New Testament about the economic propensity for the rich to become richer and the poor, poorer). A downward spiral impacts upon reading ability and then, according to Stanovich, on cognitive capability.

Underachievement in groups of children in the UK is recognised in international studies – and successive governments have sought to address the issues in a range of ways. Reading to dogs, so far, has not been among them, but it’s time to look at the strategy more seriously.

Many children naturally enjoy reading and need little encouragement, but if they are struggling their confidence can quickly diminish – and with it their motivation. This sets in motion the destructive cycle whereby reading ability fails to improve.

So how can dogs help?

A therapeutic presence

Reading to dogs is just that – encouraging children to read alongside a dog. The practice originated in the US in 1999 with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) scheme and initiatives of this type now extend to a number of countries. In the UK, for example, the Bark and Read scheme supported by the Kennel Club is meeting with considerable enthusiasm.

The ideal combination?
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The presence of dogs has a calming effect on many people – hence their use in Pets as Therapy schemes (PAT). Many primary schools are becoming increasingly pressurised environments and children (like adults) generally do not respond well to such pressure. A dog creates an environment that immediately feels more relaxed and welcoming. Reading can be a solitary activity, but can also be a pleasurable, shared social event. Children who are struggling to read benefit from the simple pleasure of reading to a loyal, loving listener.

Children who are struggling to read, for whatever reason, need to build confidence and rediscover a motivation for reading. A dog is a reassuring, uncritical audience who will not mind if mistakes are made. Children can read to the dog, uninterrupted; comments will not be made. Errors can be addressed in other contexts at other times. For more experienced or capable readers, they can experiment with intonation and “voices”, knowing that the dog will respond positively – and building fluency further develops comprehension in readers.

For children who are struggling, reconnecting with the pleasure of reading is very important. As Marylyn Jager-Adams,a literacy scholar, noted in a seminal review of beginner reading in the US: “If we want children to learn to read well, we must find a way to induce them to read lots.”

Reading to a dog can create a helpful balance, supporting literacy activities which may seem less appealing to a child. Children with dyslexia, for example, need focused support to develop their understanding of the alphabetic code (how speech sounds correspond to spelling choices). But this needs to be balanced with activities which support independent reading and social enjoyment or the child can become demotivated.

Creating a virtuous circle

Breaking a negative cycle will inevitably lead to the creation of a virtuous circle – and sharing a good book with a dog enables children to apply their reading skills in a positive and enjoyable way.

Research evidence in this area is rather limited, despite the growing popularity of the scheme. A 2016 systematic review of 48 studies – Children Reading to Dogs: A Systematic Review of the Literature by Hall, Gee and Mills – demonstrated some evidence for improvement in reading, but the evidence was not strong. There clearly is more work to do, but interest in reading to dogs appears to have grown through the evidence of case studies.

The example, often cited in the media, is that of Tony Nevett and his greyhound Danny. Tony and Danny’s involvement in a number of schools has been transformative, not only in terms of reading but also in promoting general well-being and positive behaviour among children with a diverse range of needs.

So, reading to dogs could offer many benefits. As with any approach or intervention, it is not a panacea – but set within a language-rich literacy environment, there appears to be little to lose and much to gain.

Gill Johnson, Assistant Professor in Education, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Dr. Lori’s Top 10 Tips for Bringing Dogs Into Schools

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Recently, I’ve had several school administrators and teachers ask me for advice: they have heard about all of the wonderful benefits of dogs interacting with children, and they would now like to bring a dog into their own school, either to read with children or to use as a support for children with developmental challenges. But then they inevitably run up against the same problems – what do they do about children who suffer from allergies to animals, and how do they protect children who are scared of dogs?

In this article, I would like to address both of these issues. Although real and pressing (I too am allergic to most dogs!), there are certainly ways to bring a dog into a school setting and protect all of your students. As an elementary school teacher and researcher who has brought dogs into many schools and 2nd grade classrooms, here are my top 10 tips for bringing a real dog into a school:

Preparing to Bring a Dog into Your School

10. Select the Dog Carefully: When selecting a dog to become part of your school or classroom community, if possible, choose a dog that is known to be hyper-allergenic and/or does not shed. Poodles are a great choice, as are maltese. Check out this article by the American Kennel Association that lists best dog breeds for allergy sufferers by clicking here.

9. Keep Fido Clean & Happy: Ensure that the dog is well groomed and is bathed just prior to each visit to help minimize allergens. Especially if the dog sheds, ask the dog’s handler to bring a clean dog bed or blanket (free of dog hair) for the dog to sit or lie on during the visit to help minimize potential dander transfer. To help keep the dog clean, ensure that children use a hand sanitizer before petting the dog, and to protect the children, ensure that they use this hand sanitizer again after interacting with the dog (and before they eat or come into contact with children who might have allergies). Also, ensure that the dog has been walked (and has had opportunity to go to the bathroom) before entering school property, and that you have a bowl and fresh water on hand for your visit.

8. Train the Dog and Handler: Ensure that the dog is over one year of age, has been well-socialized around children, and has received a Canine Good Citizenship Certificate. Also ensure that both the handler and dog have received Therapy Dog Training.

7. Insurance and Permissions:  Pre-arrange appropriate and necessary insurance before you bring a dog into your school. Also, ensure that you have received written consent from the parents of the children who will be interacting with the dog (some parents do not want their children in contact with dogs for sanitary, health, or cultural reasons). When requesting parental consent, be sure to clearly articulate what the nature of the interaction will be, the purpose of the interaction, the dates and number of times the child will interact with the dog, and where the dog and child will work in the school. Also let school staff and parents know about the schedule for the dog’s visits (publishing the schedule in the school newsletter and/or on the school website is helpful) so teachers can make adjustments to their plans as necessary. For example, if the dog will be working with children in an otherwise common area such as a section of the school library, teachers will want to ensure that their students do not venture into this area at that time. When determining a schedule for the dog and handler, be aware that it is not recommended for a dog to be in a school environment for more than one hour per visit, with no more than 2-3 visits per week. Although it might not appear stressful for a dog to be in this environment, research indicates that asking dogs to do this work more than this is linked to stress-related illnesses.

6. Ensure a Stress-Free Experience: It will help to minimize potential stress for the dog if you can bring the dog onto the school property several times either before or after school hours (before the program with children begins) so the dog can become more familiar with the strange smells and environment a school offers, and so they can become more comfortable with the space where they will be working.

Before the Dog Comes to the School:

5. Consistency with Entry & Exit: Ensure that the dog you want to bring into the school always enters and exits the school from the same pre-arranged side entrance, and that the dog enters and leaves the school after the bell has rung and children are in their classes. This will minimize potential contact with the dog for most students.

4. Prepare Staff and Students: On the school announcements at the end of the day before the dog arrives and on the morning before the dog enters the school, arrange for a general reminder to students and to staff that there will be a dog at the school during specific hours. Ask classroom teachers to discuss this briefly with their students, taking note of which children are afraid of and/or are allergic to dogs so they can ensure that those children are not in the hallway (or are supervised) should they need to leave the classroom for any reason while the dog is at the school.

3. Consider a Dog Stroller: If the dog is small enough, using a dog stroller can be a wonderful way to bring a dog into and out of a school. This way, the dog can be contained but still visible as he/she is in public areas such as hallways. It is also a very helpful way to carry books and other materials you will need if you will be reading with children, and will prevent small hands from reaching out to pet (and possibly overwhelm) the dog as they pass by in the halls.

2. A Safe Space for Learning: Arrange for the dog to always work in the same space in the school so this routine becomes comfortable for the dog, the students, and your school staff. If the weather allows, using an outdoor space such as a school courtyard or learning under the shade of a large tree can also be a wonderful option to minimize allergies for children. If the space must be indoors, choosing a room that is outside of the general flow of student traffic (such as a meeting room or school counselor’s office) can be a nice option for ensuring a peaceful and uninterrupted learning experience.

1. Prevent Problems through Education: Did you know that dog bites to children account for more than 400,000 emergency room visits in the United States each year? This isn’t because children and dogs aren’t a good match – it’s because we often bring children into close proximity to dogs without teaching them the necessary skills they need to interact with dogs safely and compassionately. If possible, encourage a school-wide effort for teachers to teach students how to meet a new dog appropriately, how to read a dog’s body language, how dogs are similar and different to children, and behaviors that are okay and not okay around dogs. My program, How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed in the Classroom, is designed to teach second grade children these very lessons – all while inspiring them to become motivated, eager readers. Therefore, you may want to consider implementing this program in your school prior to bringing a therapy dog into classrooms.

This Sounds Like a Lot of Work

Yes, I know. It does seem like a lot of preparation and planning to bring a dog into a school or classroom, and it is.

But now ask me if it’s worth it.

I would argue that inevitably, the answer is yes. But don’t take my word for it – check out the Intermountain Therapy Animals Association for a complete listing of schools across the United States that have brought R.E.A.D. dogs into thousands of classrooms for over two decades. I wish you joy and success as you explore this fantastic, innovative, and heart-warming approach to enhancing your students’ educational experience.

With love, joy, and tail wags,

Dr. Lori

I’d love to hear from you! If you have a question or a comment about bringing a dog into your school, please contact me below:

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