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.
I’m thrilled to share this video endorsement from one of the school principals who has participated in this program with her students over the past two years. This year, Sunny Sands Elementary School is participating in both the 1st and 2nd grade program in Palm Springs Unified School District with approximately 230 students. Here is what the principal, Pamela Horton, has to say about her experience with the program – and the awesome DIBELS reading scores her students are now achieving!
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed in the Classroom began as an eight-week after-school program with only four children. As I’ve grown and expanded this program to become a full-year school curriculum for 2nd grade, it wasn’t long before teachers and parents began asking, “Why isn’t there a program like this for 1st grade?”
My answer? The reality is that I was so deeply grateful and surprised by the amazing results we were getting with the 2nd grade program that I wondered how on earth I would ever come up with something that could even remotely compare to it for 1st grade.
I struggled with this for a long time as I visited 1st grade classrooms, marveling at the imaginations of six-year-old children and working to understand how their minds worked, what they loved, what made their eyes light up and say, “Oh I love this! More, please!”
I struggled with what exactly might capture these children’s imaginations and hearts, while developing an innovative and solid curriculum that would meet Common Core Standards in English Language Arts.
I pondered this, that is, until sweet Dozer visited my imagination on my morning walk one day. The idea for Dozer came to me with startling clarity, and I fell in love with him instantly. And then his story tumbled out of my mind faster than I can even describe it. That’s when I knew I needed 1st grade children to help him to solve his big problem…
On Monday morning, January 9, 2017, nearly 500 children will meet sweet Dozer in classrooms across the Coachella Valley in our first pilot of this exciting program.
One adorable, plush Dozer will arrive in classrooms as a surprise gift for each class of students, along with his shiny, red Doggone Awesome Puppy Postal Service Mailbox and a mysterious letter, letting the students know that he has lost his family in an earthquake.
Would they be willing to help him by going on an adventure around the world with his two best friends, Buddy and Daisy, to solve the mystery of where in the world his family has gone?
The students won’t be alone in solving this mystery, of course! With the help of super under-cover animal agents from the C.A.R.E. (Compassionate, Appreciative, Responsible, and Encouraging) Animal Team from around the world, the students will receive videos from Dr. Lori, Buddy, and Daisy, viewed on Dozer’s Doggy Detective Video Blog, to learn clues that will help them to solve this mystery.
What does this have to do with literacy, you ask? Well, although dogs are very, very cute, the problem is that they have a really hard time with reading and writing. 🙂 Each letter the students receive via the Doggone Awesome Puppy Postal Service from Buddy or Daisy is riddled with punctuation, capitalization, and spelling errors. Once the students re-write each letter to help them fix their mistakes and fill in the missing letters, a secret word is revealed that tells the students which country they will be exploring next for clues!
Once students unlock the mystery of the next country they will visit, they fill in a graphic organizer for each country while watching a video with Dr. Lori and Buddy or Daisy from Dozer’s Doggy Detective Video Blog. As they view the video, students chart information about “What can we see? What can we do? What do they speak? What do they eat?” in each amazing country.
Then, students learn three new clues about which country they think Dozer’s family might be in next. After students make predictions about which country they think Dozer’s family could be in based on the new clues, they use Doggy Detective Magnifying Glasses to find the country using a world map.
This first grade adventure is designed to teach the writing process in a fun and meaningful way. The graphic organizers serve as pre-writing for related writing projects for each country. For example, after visiting Mexico with Daisy to discover more clues, the students create flip-books to plan what they would see, do, and pack for a trip to Mexico. Students participate in drafting, revising and editing, publishing, and of course, Author’s Chair with Dozer.
Throughout the entire program, students learn important lessons about respect and compassion for animals around the world as they learn alongside Buddy and Daisy in each incredible country they visit.
Students learn how to care for their own pets with kindness and compassion, and learn about larger issues such as how the growing global population affects the homes of animals and the health of our oceans.
Meanwhile, parents are included throughout the entire program with weekly at-home Doggy Detective Challenges in which Dozer challenges the students to read for 30 minutes each week and learn five new sight words. Parents are provided with weekly tips, ideas, and strategies for how to practice sight words with their children at home, as well as a weekly strategy for how to help their child in reading.
When students bring their completed Doggy Detective Challenge back to school each week, the students earn a paw print on Dozer’s Special Surprises! chart in a group effort to earn a class reward from Dozer and their teacher. What a fun way to encourage the home-school connection, all while supporting parents to help their children in literacy!
At the end of the program, of course, Dozer finds his family (but the location is top secret information)! The only problem is – his family is at an animal shelter, and there are all of these other pups who need good homes… so would each child be willing to “foster” and then “adopt” one plush dog each when they come back to school in 2nd grade?
When students come back to school in the fall, their new adventure begins….!
Needless to say, I guess I didn’t have to worry about coming up with ideas to motivate and inspire children in 1st grade. I can’t wait to share the results and feedback from teachers, parents, and kiddos in the spring!
To learn more about this program and get your school involved, click on the links below:
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 hope you enjoy this article, just in time for Easter and published in the March Issue of the La Quinta Gem!
Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.
We often make the mistake of thinking that kids are “too little” to make a difference, but there is nothing further from the truth. Here are ten fun and engaging ways to help children express love and kindness to animals:
1. Cuddly Book Buddies: If you are a teacher, invite your students to bring a stuffed animal to school to read with a younger grade level. You could arrange for a special visit from your class to another, bringing their pups with them, to snuggle up and read a great book with them. Use this opportunity to plant the seed for children to consider reading with their own animals at home.
2. Give a Little, Get a Lot: Brainstorm a list of things dogs and cats need in their daily lives, and then challenge each child to bring one care item to school (a can of food, a leash for a dog, a cat toy, a tennis ball, a bowl, a blanket, etc.) to create a care package for a local animal shelter. Then involve your class in creating a letter to the animals at the shelter, including a class pic of the kids with their own dogs, and send it to your local shelter. This is such a wonderful way to express compassion for these often very lonely animals.
3. Cook Up Some Goodness: Involve your students in a class cooking project to make dog and cat treats for a local animal rescue group. You can invite each child to bring one ingredient from home to create your masterpiece. Then if possible, actually deliver the treats on a class field trip, along with a class letter to give to the rescue group and its’ animals.
4. Stuffed Buddies for Other Kids: Invite your students to bring a gently-used stuffed animal to school – to donate to a local children’s charity (or even to another school) so they too can have their own reading buddy. Ask each student to write a letter to another child, explaining that this is a new reading buddy for them so they won’t have to be alone as they learn to read.
5. Add a Splash of Creativity and Color: You could have your students create animal-themed bookmarks for a younger class, with each bookmark listing three things kids can do to demonstrate kindness to animals in their lives. You could combine this idea with #1 above to make that experience extra-special!
6. 100 Acts of Kindness: Challenge your students to list 100 kind acts towards animals in their lives for the week. This could mean making sure your pet has clean water every day, offering to take your dog out first thing in the morning, feeding your fish every day, cleaning your hamster’s cage, offering to walk your neighbor’s dog, giving a special treat to your grandma’s cat, or spending extra quality time with your pet this week.
7. Kindness for Animals in Your Community: Cleaning up trash in your neighborhood or even on your school grounds helps to keep both people and animals healthy and safe. Challenge your class to pick up 10 pieces of trash each to help your school stay beautiful and clean, while also preventing animals from eating foil and other items that can be dangerous for them. Remember, animals in the wild do not have doctors or veterinarians to help them if they eat a candy wrapper or some Styrofoam – one way we can help to protect these animals is by cleaning up our trash.
8. Raise a Little Love Money: Hold a “class garage sale” where each child brings in one toy or stuffed animal to donate to the sale, or organize a Valentine’s Day Candy Sale – with all proceeds going towards an animal shelter of their choice!
9. Kindness in Our Everyday Lives: Here’s a great way to encourage children to think about ways they can express simple acts of kindness. In different parts of your classroom, place five poster board signs:
Divide your students randomly into five groups, and then have each group brainstorm and list ideas for how they can show kindness to both people and animals in each place. Then come back together as a group to see how many ideas you can generate together. Finally, challenge your students to actually do these acts of kindness over the next week, placing a heart-shaped sticker beside each act of kindness children carry out. ☺
10. Think Beyond Ourselves: Challenge your students to think big about ways they can continue to help animals in their lives, such as asking for donations for an animal rescue group for their next birthday party instead of asking for gifts. There are some wonderful examples of how other children have done this on the Humane Society of the United States website at: http://www.humanesociety.org/parents_educators/kids/kids/.
You might also want to consider subscribing to the Humane Society magazine, Kind News (http://www.humanesociety.org/news/magazines/kind_news/) , which features child heroes for animals.
One of my favorite things about this time of the year is feeling inspired to create and distill my big goals for the next twelve months. I used to reserve a quiet evening each January to snuggle up by the fire with my two little pups and a hot mug of tea so I could dream and write about what I wanted the next year to look and feel like. It was satisfying, but somewhere along the way, I would lose track of my goals and begin to take them less seriously. Often, I even lost that piece of paper, too. 🙂
Then, about five years ago, I learned the art of creating vision boards from my mentor Jack Canfield, #1 New York Times Bestselling author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series and The Success Principles. Jack attributes much of his success, both personally and professionally, to the regular practice of creating and using vision boards in his daily life. Since learning to create vision boards, my life has changed in significant ways. I wouldn’t call vision boards “magic,” but I would attribute much of my success directly to the daily, focused attention to and visualization of what I really, really want from this incredible life.
Because of this, I began teaching younger students how to create vision boards of their own. I’ve worked with children as young as seven years old to teach them to articulate what it is their big goals and dreams are for their lives, and it’s always such a heart-warming and exciting experience to learn that what really matters to a lot of children isn’t what we think it might be. I invite you to challenge yourself this year to give your students the tools and strategies they need to learn to believe in themselves, to dream big, and to create the life of their dreams through vision boards. Just watch my video below to learn how!