Reading to Dogs Benefits Children

Study suggests surprising reason
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2017

There are lots of programs that allow children to be with a dog when reading. The goal is to help children read better and to feel more comfortable doing so. There’s a general understanding that the presence of a dog is beneficial to children who are learning to read, but not much data about how dogs help. A new study, “Minor Immediate Effects of a Dog on Children’s Reading Performance and Physiology" tested the effects of dogs on kids who are learning to read. The project found that (surprise, surprise) dogs have a positive impact, and that it is largely due to the effect of dogs on psychological factors.

Austrian children who were 9-10 years old and reading at below average levels participated in this study. Each child was involved in two videotaped reading sessions—one with a dog and one without. (It was randomly determined for each child whether the dog was present in the first or in the second session.) All of the dogs were previously certified as school visitation dogs and regularly interacted with kids in the school setting.

The children’s heart rates and heart rate variability were measured as an assessment of stress and excitement and levels of salivary cortisol were measured multiple times during each session. The quantity of various actions by the children were measured with videotape analysis. Behaviors of interest were those indicating nervousness such as coughing, throat clearing, jiggling the foot or leg, and playing with or fumbling with objects. The amount of time children spent talking or engaged in self-manipulation (such as scratching) was also recorded.

In the comprehension tests, reading performance was similar for children regardless of whether a dog was present. However, in a repeated reading (RR) test, the dog was a factor. For this test, children read a passage of text with the instruction to read as fast as they could while making as few errors as possible. They then had an opportunity to review words that gave them trouble and practice those words before reading the passage again. When children had a dog present in their first session, they did better on the repeated reading test. There was no such effect without a dog present or when the dog was present in the second session, suggesting that in the new situation of an experimental reading test, the dog’s presence offered some benefit. The advantage of a dog’s presence may be due to an increase in arousal and motivation that positively impacted children’s reading performance.

Additional evidence for an increase in arousal comes from the physiological measures taken during the study. Children had higher cortisol levels in the second session when a dog was present than when there was no dog, and kids had higher heart rates in the presence of a dog than when no dog was there. However, increased arousal in the children when a dog was present was not seen across the board. For example, children with a dog present in the first session showed fewer nervous movements than children whose first session did not have a dog present.

Most ideas about dogs helping young readers assume that the mechanism is a calming effect of the dogs on kids, including a decrease in their anxiety. This study suggests that increased arousal, which may add to children’s motivation to read, may be at play. The subjects of this study were children who had problems with reading, but most studies have used children whose reading skills were average, so that could be a factor in the findings. As the authors note, studying children over additional sessions would be more likely to reveal long term differences in reading progress.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.