Reading to Dogs ... a "Pawsitive" Experience
By Kathy Klotz
In 1999, our nonprofit organization, Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, introduced a new literacy support program for children called Reading Education Assistance Dogs® or R.E.A.D.®
The mission of the R.E.A.D. program is to improve the literacy skills of children in a unique approach employing a classic concept: reading to a dog.
But not just any dog—R.E.A.D. dogs are registered therapy animals, who have been trained and tested for health, safety, skills and temperament. The R.E.A.D. dogs and their owners volunteer as a team, offering children an opportunity to improve their reading in a safe, comfortable and inviting environment. Currently, there are hundreds of R.E.A.D. teams volunteering throughout the United States and Canada in elementary schools, libraries, and other settings.
“Wait just a minute!” you’re saying. “Dogs can’t read!” Of course they can’t. But they can be ideal reading companions for many reasons: they listen attentively; they do not judge, laugh or criticize; they encourage relaxation and lower blood pressure; and reading to dogs is much less intimidating than asking kids to read to their peers. Remember how terrifying it could be when the teacher called on you to read to your classmates?
Is this just a gimmick? The latest goofy idea to get our kids interested in reading? Not at all. Research over the last 30 years has consistently supported and expanded our knowledge about the benefits that accrue when humans interact with other species, and animals appear almost universally to provide a beneficial and positive influence upon children, especially (Beck and Katcher, 1983).
There does seem to be something almost magical about the interactions that take place between children and animals, and it’s more than entertainment.
William Glasser, Ph.D., in Choice Theory in the Classroom (1998), suggests that, once basic survival needs are met, there are four great motivators: love, power, freedom and fun. R.E.A.D. incorporates each one of these motivators.
Some results we anticipated: kids make enormous strides in reading and communication skills while, along the way, building self-esteem, confidence, and social skills. But there have also been some surprises—performance in other subjects tends to improve, as does attendance and even personal hygiene. The children participating in the R.E.A.D. program have become more respectful of each other and of the animals, too.
As we have thought about why these good things happen when our therapy dogs get involved in the reading environment, we have found that Glasser’s four motivators offer insight and understanding.
First is love. People are quick to say that dogs are great because they offer “unconditional love.” But what does that mean? I like to call it unconditional acceptance, instead. Dogs accept us completely, just as we are. They do not judge, criticize or belittle efforts; they don’t care if we are fashionably dressed, or whether we make mistakes. And they never, ever humiliate us.
Family therapist Rich Chakrin, M.A., in Oxford, Michigan, calls this phenomenon the “gift of being welcomed,” and says it’s an important key to developmental learning that parents can also create with their children. After hearing about R.E.A.D. he now asks those in his parenting classes to consider dogs as role models—because, as R.E.A.D. has shown, the dogs make a child feel so safe and accepted that s/he can relax and feel free to blossom.
Of course we love our children—but do we clearly convey that we accept them totally? Child or adult, we all shrivel a bit when we are criticized. We need to feel accepted, just as we are, before we can really shine.
Another keystone to the success of our program lies in a role shift, in which kids who are accustomed to feeling inadequate or incompetent suddenly get a chance to become the teacher who helps their R.E.A.D. dog understand the story. It’s an interesting, if illogical, phenomenon—children certainly realize that they are not teaching their dog to “read,” but they remain eager to explain everything about the story to him. Here is where power and freedom come in. The children get to feel the power of competence and accomplishment, and the pride that arises when they realize they have a gift to offer another being. Focusing on what they are able to give instead of get makes them literally glow. We did not design this feature into our program; rather, the kids initiate it, naturally and consistently.
Feeling powerful, in any context, is energizing, exhilarating, and liberating. So is stretching mental skills and being able to help someone else, even if that someone is a canine friend!
The fun of being with animals doesn’t need explanation, but there’s something else that is important when children read to dogs—the motivations are direct and an integral part of the experience, rather than indirect or secondary.
Other recent research reveals the bleak news that, in addition to all those millions of Americans who don’t know how to read, there are millions more who simply don’t like to read and, more and more, are choosing not to. The American Booksellers Association now estimates that the average American reads less than one book per year. How do we help our children learn to love reading? While educators may debate at length over direct versus indirect motivators, I can’t get too excited about asking a child to slog through a book so s/he can earn points to get free pizza later on. The challenge is to make the reading environment irresistible, the experience itself delightful and satisfying.
The R.E.A.D. Program is one excellent answer to this challenge. Reading Education Assistance Dogs are creating rich reading experiences for children all over the country. Contact us at Intermountain Therapy Animals, www.therapyanimals.org. We’ll help you find—or start—a program that can introduce these “pawsitive” benefits to the children in your community.
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