I was thrilled and honored to be invited to another exciting Adoption Ceremony at Bubbling Wells Elementary School, one of three California Gold Ribbon Schools in Palm Springs Unified School District that are participating in How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed in the Classroom. After leading the students in their Love Pledge for their plush pups, another 133 students became official “pet parents” and got to take home their pups to become part of their forever families. And the best part? Well, aside from the beaming faces of the graduates, it was the wonderful comments by the principal, Omar Tinoco, who explained how this program has positively impacted student reading engagement and achievement. Congratulations on all of your hard work, Bobcats!
How dogs could make children better readers
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.
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 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.
Ok, so I’ve never had children, but I’ll never forget one of my best friends saying to me once that when you have a child, it’s like your heart is suddenly walking around out there in the big world, and you just don’t know what’s going to happen – how your child will be received, treated, liked, or loved. You spend years of your life investing time and nurture in that child, hoping and praying that everything will be ok, that they won’t experience rejection or hurt.
Being an entrepreneur is kind of like that. You create something from your heart, and then you put your heart out there and then – you just don’t know what’s going to happen – how your idea will be received, treated, liked, or loved. You spend years of your life investing time and nurture in that idea, hoping and praying that everything will be ok, and that you won’t experience rejection or hurt.
The differences, of course, are obvious. But much of the time you really don’t know, as a business owner, how your ideas and offerings will be accepted in the world. But this morning – this morning was one of those rare moments when I felt like it’s all been worth it. When the careful nurturing, the hours and hours and hours of focused attention and love I’ve poured into my offering, came back to me in spades. I imagine it’s the business equivalent of seeing your child get nominated for “Student of the Year.” That moment when you think, “Oh thank God, some of it is finally paying off. I’m not a terrible parent after all!”
This morning, Sunny Sands Elementary School held their 2nd Grade Reading Celebration and Adoption Ceremony as the culmination of the program I crafted from my heart and have loved from it’s beginning: “How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed in the Classroom.” Over 130 children and a sprinkling of parents streamed into the large room, the children clutching the little plush dogs they have named and “fostered” over the past ten weeks, holding them close to their hearts, and proudly displaying their bright, yellow Adoption Certificates. I watched from a distance, taking it all in, until one of them recognized me.
“Hey! It’s the lady from the videos!” said one little boy. “Yeah! It’s the dog lady!” said another (no, that did not insult me in the least, if you are wondering), “Hey everybody look, it’s Dr. Lori!”
One hundred heads turned, and then chaos broke loose. Everybody needed my attention, instantly. One young boy with dark, serious eyes held his dog up to me and said, “Dr. Lori, I give my dog tons of respect. On the way here, I used my Adoption Certificate to keep him out of the sun because it’s too hot for him.” Another boy rocked two dogs in his arms. “I’m babysitting for my friend,” he explained quietly. And then voices came from everywhere, “We LOVE your videos! Thank you for your videos!”
I was almost in tears from this outpouring of gratitude when I got up on the stage to lead their Love Pledge – a right of passage before these students would earn the privilege of taking these dogs home with them to “adopt” and become a part of their forever families. I asked the students to place one hand on their heart, and to please repeat after me:
By accepting this certificate, I promise to always be kind to my dog. I promise to love my dog no matter what. I promise to never pull my dog’s tail or be mean in any way. I promise to tell my dog these things: I am so proud of you. You are so special.You are so smart, and I love you – just as you are.
After the ceremony, I planned to wave to the students to say good-bye. But instead, I received over fifty hugs from thrilled, smiling new “pet parents” as they broke away from their teachers to embrace me in a rush of gratitude. I wish I could show you some of their beautiful, beaming faces.
It was one of those moments when it seemed like everyone present could feel the positive energy in the room, the elevated sense that this is what matters, that this is a slice of the good in the world, and what Aristotle must have had in mind when he wrote, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
There are moments, as an entrepreneur, when it feels like I just want to give up. When it feels like the mountain is just too big to climb, the goal is just too big, when I wonder if it’s all worth it, and when I wonder if any of this is making a difference at all. Today, these students reminded me that it absolutely is worth it, and that we really are making an incredible difference in this world, one heart and mind at a time.
Thank you, Sunny Sands teachers, for your amazing work with these children in literacy and in compassion for animals. I am deeply, deeply grateful for your time, for your commitment, and for your invitation to attend today and remind me of what really matters. You are the real reason for this program’s success, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support.
Check out what Tony Knapp, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction for Palm Springs Unified School District, has to say about How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed in the Classroom:
I’m thrilled that Univsion came to Rio Vista Elementary School yesterday (Nov. 10th) to feature my program on the news. A huge thank you to two of the parents, Aurora and Catherine, who came out to speak about their experience with the program, as well as to teacher Teresa Jacobson and her 2nd grade class for hosting us!
And the best part? Univision is coming back again next week to cover the story of our “Doggone Awesome Reading Celebration and Adoption Ceremony” on Nov. 18th where 120 children will get to adopt and take their little stuffed dogs home to become part of their forever families. A huge thank you to Jonathan, the reporter, for coming out and for demonstrating such genuine care for children’s education.