March 2nd marks the birth date (in 1904) of beloved children’s author Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. It’s also the day the National Education Association has adopted as Read Across America Day, a nationwide event fostering literacy and love of reading. In honor of Read Across America and Dr. Seuss, this PugetPets blog post highlights a type of service animal that is not very well-known: the literacy dog. Dogs have been hanging out with humans for around 15,000 years and during that time, they’ve been unconditionally loving and being loved by human kids. It’s a relationship that’s stood the test of time. Literacy service dogs are one ultra-modern expression of this age-old bond.
Anyone who has spelled out T-R-E-A-T one too many times knows that dogs can occasionally learn to spell. Well, okay…maybe they aren’t quite spelling…. But everyone knows dogs can’t read, so what exactly does a literacy service dog do? For many kids, learning to read is about sounding out words, comprehending meanings, discovering new things or simply enjoying a well-told tale. But for children who struggle with reading, it can be challenging, demoralizing, socially uncomfortable—even scary. Some may have learning or physical disabilities. English may be their second language. Regardless of why they struggle, for these kids reading out loud in front of teachers or peers makes learning to read even harder. They often experience embarrassment, anxiety and even shame, contributing to low self-esteem. Many just want to give up. This is where the literacy service dog comes in and literally comes to the rescue.
Reading out loud to a dog is non-threatening. Children can share what they’ve learned with their companion without fear of correction or ridicule. Regardless of the obstacles kids may face or the missteps or mistakes they may make, dogs do not judge them. They are good listeners and never indulge in criticism. The literacy dog enjoys the child’s company and provides a calming and accepting presence. According to an article by Mary Renck Jalongo, et al., in Early Childhood Education Journal (Vol. 32, No. 1, August 2004), “Empirical research supports the contention that the presence of mellow companion animals tends to reduce stress….the presence of a calm, attentive dog…moderates the stress response more than the presence of an adult and even more than the presence of a supportive friend when children [are] reading aloud….” Reading out loud to a dog creates positive reading experiences and builds skills that can last a lifetime. Children who read to dogs invariably demonstrate improved reading fluency. Kids learn faster, retain their knowledge better and gain confidence in themselves. Plus, reading to dogs is fun! (And we think Dr. Seuss would approve!)
The concept of literacy service dogs is more common than you might think. Many programs exist nationwide to train and utilize literacy service animals. Chicago-area program Sit, Stay, Read is “the leading literacy organization in the United States to use dogs as a tool to improve reading in grades one through four.” Sit, Stay, Read uses Certified Reading Assistance Dogs to help struggling readers in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The 4Paws Learning and Wellness Center provides the Readers of the Pack program to elementary schools in Northern California. Puget Sound residents interested in getting involved with a literacy dog program are also in luck. Reading With Rover holds reading with dogs events in the Puget Sound area. They can help you find out how to volunteer with your dog or even start your own canine-assisted reading program.
Magical things happen when kids and dogs get together. Literacy service dogs take advantage of this timeless connection to help make reading an enjoyable and life-expanding experience for every kid. Visit Reading with Rover to find out how you can get involved with the magic.
Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, August 2004, Mary Renck Jalongo, et al.