I included The Detective Dog (written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Sara Ogilvie) on my list of picture books about libraries. It is a wonderful story about Nell, who goes into Peter’s school every Monday and listens to the children reading. I recently came across a book about another Story Dog: Madeline Finn and the Library Dog (written and illustrated by Lisa Papp). Unfortunately I was unable to borrow it from my local library service, so I can’t provide a review of it. However, here is the blurb:
Madeline Finn does NOT like to read. But she DOES want a gold star from her teacher. But, stars are for good readers. Stars are for understanding words, and for saying them out loud.
Fortunately, Madeline Finn meets Bonnie, a library dog. Reading out loud to Bonnie isn’t so bad; when Madeline Finn gets stuck, Bonnie doesn’t mind. As it turns out, it’s fine to read when you’re not afraid of making mistakes. Bonnie teaches Madeline Finn that it’s okay to go slow. And to keep trying.
(Synopsis from Peachtree Publishers)
These two books have inspired today’s post, which is all about reading dogs and the benefits they have for emergent readers.
Reading to a captive audience!
Reading to dogs has become increasingly popular since the idea was first introduced in the US in 1999 through the READ program. Since then, a number of organisations have been set up around the world including Bark and Read in the UK and Story Dogs in Australia. The aim of these programs is to promote a love of reading through helping children to “develop literacy skills and build confidence” (The Kennel Club, 2017). Dogs are chosen for their calm temperament and their handlers are trained to support emergent readers. They speak through the dog to ask the child questions about the book, words or pictures (Story Dogs, 2017). In some programs, the dogs are taught to ‘read’ flash cards with commands such as ‘Sit’ and ‘Paw’ on them (Stroud, 2012). The reading sessions take place in public libraries or schools with the children sitting near their dog so they are able to interact with them (Pets As Therapy, 2015). The reading dogs initiative may occur alongside other therapeutic programs supporting emotional and social development (Stroud, 2012).
Reading to a dog is sooooo relaxing
Reading to a dog has been shown to be beneficial in a number of ways. Being with a dog has a calming effect on children (The Kennel Club, 2017), providing comfort and encouraging positive behaviours (Pets As Therapy, 2015). There is evidence that children’s blood pressure and stress levels are lower when reading out loud to a dog (Stroud, 2012). Many talk to their canine friend about themselves and their worries, which helps them to develop their emotional intelligence (The Kennel Club, 2017). Dogs are also non-judgemental listeners (The Kennel Club, 2017), who don’t point out mistakes or criticise reading attempts. In addition, because they are told they are teaching the dog to read, children feel more in control of the reading process (Stroud, 2012). This means that they are more likely to have a go at difficult words, thereby improving their literacy skills and increasing their confidence as readers (Story Dogs, 2017). In a pilot scheme at a primary school in the UK, 60% of children improved their reading age by 3 months in a 6 week period (The Kennel Club, 2017). In another study, Year 2 students showed improved attitudes towards reading after undertaking a program in which they read to dogs. This then positively affected their motivation to read (Scienmag, 2017).
These reading programs are often targeted at struggling readers. However, I believe they need to be offered to all children, because of the emotional benefits associated with reading (and being) with dogs. Confident readers may not be anxious about reading out loud, but they may still be stressed by school or home life. Reading to a dog may help them with these worries.
Story dogs love to look at the pictures
Programs that promote reading to dogs have a positive effect on readers because they encourage the ‘virtuous circle’ in which the more you read, the better you become at reading (Johnson, 2017). I would also add that the better you are at reading, the more you read. This improves your academic skills and life chances. However, if you struggle with reading, you tend to avoid it, which negatively impacts on your learning and future outcomes (Johnson, 2017). It is so important to remember that “learning to read is often less about intellectual limitation than about overcoming fears” (Story Dogs, 2017). This is where story dogs come in; they help children to gain confidence in their ability to read and to learn to enjoy the wonders of the written word.
If you are able to, open the doors of your library to this service. If you aren’t, read to your dog (or someone else’s!). Because “set within a language-rich literacy environment, there appears to be little to lose and much to gain” (Johnson, 2017) about these dog-centred programs.