Therapy Dogs Help Children’s Reading Skills

Dog listeners do wonders for a child learning to read.
By Ernest L. Abel PhD, July 2017, Updated July 2018
Reading with dogs, children's program
Reading with dogs, children's program

Sandi Martin, RN, always wanted a dog. But as manager of a Salt Lake City hospital’s intensivecare burn unit, she had a demanding job with unpredictable hours. Plus, during her free time, she gave talks at professional meetings on critical care and ethics. It was the job or a dog.

Martin chose a dog.

In 1999, she resigned from her job at the hospital and took a position with a community outreach program with a less stressful work schedule. She cut back on her presentations and bought a house. Then she started to look for a dog.

On one of her weekend outings, she went to the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter. She hadn’t intended to adopt a puppy, but when she saw a playful little Portuguese Water Dog with big feet, a big head and a tail that bent over her back, Martin fell in love. The pup, who had been at the shelter for 10 days, was scheduled to be euthanized the following Monday. Martin took her home and named her Olivia.


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A little while after Olivia came into her life, Martin was talking with Kathy Klotz, the director of Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA), which had developed programs that brought dogs into therapeutic settings. At the hospital, Martin had seen firsthand how children with burns responded in a positive way to the ITA dogs.

In Martin’s experience, many of these children lacked focus, didn’t look forward to doing any of the tasks they were given and generally had low self-esteem across the board. But when they interacted with therapy animals, they seemed to develop more confidence in themselves. They forgot their limitations. Their focus improved, and they became more interested and involved in what they were asked to do.

Thinking about the remarkable turnarounds the dogs facilitated, the proverbial light bulb went off in Martin’s head. Could dogs do the same for children who had trouble reading? The next day, she called Klotz and arranged to meet up so she could run her idea past her.

Over coffee, Martin explained what she wanted to do: A lot of children with reading problems weren’t performing up to their grade level because they lacked confidence and self-esteem. Maybe letting them interact with a dog while they were reading would help them in the same way dogs were helping burn victims.

Their next step was to talk to the city library’s staff. Klotz says they thought the idea was “wacko,” but they listened. Nothing like it had ever been done. What if it worked? What if bringing dogs into the library and having them listen to children read aloud would make them more confident? It didn’t take long to find out.

Dog Day Afternoons

In November 1999, Martin and Klotz got permission to start a “Dog Day Afternoons.” It began with six children and six animals: five dogs (Olivia among them) and one cat. One of the first children who agreed to sit down with Olivia was a seven-year-old boy. Before he started, he looked at his shoes and in a quiet voice said, “I don’t read very well.”

“That’s okay,” Martin told him. “Olivia doesn’t either, but she loves to listen.”

Reluctantly, the boy began reading softly, turning to Olivia after every word. The next week, he brought his “Spot” book with him and read it to Olivia, pronouncing half the words correctly, a big improvement from the previous week. On the fourth week, he rushed into the library and in a loud voice announced, “Olivia, program at the local library called I’ve got a really cool book to read to you.”

Other children had equally remarkable experiences. A young girl who didn’t want to take part in the program but was persuaded to do so by her grandmother improved so much that a few years later, she won her school’s essay contest. The title of her essay was “Why Would You Want to Read to a Dog?”

There were other success stories. A sixth-grade boy who had recently come from Bosnia walked into the room with his hands behind his back. Though he wouldn’t come up to the dogs, he asked questions. Martin asked him if he would like to pet one of the dogs.

“I can’t,” he said. “It’s against my religion.” The boy was Muslim, and devout Muslims are taught that dogs are not to be touched. Martin was surprised—she wasn’t aware of this prohibition—but said he didn’t have to touch the dog; he could just read to him. Reluctantly, the boy sat down next to one of the dogs and began reading. The boy returned every week, selecting the same dog each time but never petting him. As with all the children in the program, there was a noticeable improvement in his reading. Later that year, the students in his class were asked to write an essay on what they wanted to be when they grew up. The boy who wasn’t allowed to touch dogs wrote that he wanted to be a veterinarian.

Next, Martin approached local elementary schools. Many of the teachers were skeptical, but after principals gave their approval, some agreed to participate. Once a week for 20 minutes, children who were having difficulty sat down with Olivia or one of the other dogs in the program and read aloud to them. The teachers could see an immediate improvement. At the end of the year, some had improved by two to four reading grades. Children who used to slide down in their chairs when it came time for reading aloud would now raise their hands. Teachers were delighted.

There were also some unexpected benefits. Concerned about a little girl’s bad breath, Martin made an appointment for her with the school dentist. Although Martin thought cavities might be the cause, it turned out to be a more easily remedied problem: the girl wasn’t brushing her teeth.

As a way to introduce the subject of brushing, Martin asked the girl if Olivia had dog breath. The girl sniffed Olivia’s mouth and said that no, she didn’t. Martin told the girl that Olivia brushed her teeth every day, then offered to bring the girl a toothbrush and toothpaste so she could brush too. The girl agreed, and Martin gave her the book Dog Breath to read to Olivia. The next time the girl saw Olivia, she blew at her and said proudly, “See, Olivia, I don’t have dog breath anymore.”

Sadly, Olivia succumbed to cancer when she was a little more than two years old. By then attached to Portuguese Water Dogs, Martin adopted another one, named her Zelda and incorporated her into the reading program. When Salt Lake City opened its new library in 2003, Zelda pulled the opening ribbon.

What started out as a specialized local effort is now Reading Education Assistance Dogs ® (R.E.A.D.) and has branches across the United States and Canada. As part of Intermountain Therapy Animals, registered R.E.A.D. teams can also be found in Europe and South Africa.

Reading With Rover

In Washington state, Becky Bishop, owner of a dog-therapy business in Woodinville, heard about the R.E.A.D. program at her local library. Bishop and her dogs visited people in hospice, and she noticed that while the people felt better after a visit, the dogs seemed to come away somewhat depressed. In 2000, looking for a way to perk up her dogs, she wondered if a library reading program for children might also be therapeutic for her dogs. Bishop described what happened next in an article in Edutopia magazine.

As soon as she brought her dogs to the library, both the children and the dogs lit up. Parents told her about the improvements their children had made in reading aloud after coming to the library every Saturday to read to the dogs, and her dogs seemed to be much less depressed after interacting with the children.

When teachers heard about the program, many wanted to bring dogs into their classrooms, but there was a problem: not all school districts allow dogs in the classroom. Not willing to give up, these teachers discovered that if they could get the dogs and their trainers screened and certified, the school district would relent. The dogs have become “rock stars” for the children, says Brian Daly, one of the teachers who got his school district to let him bring dogs into his second-grade class.

Bishop’s program, loosely based on R.E.A.D., is now known as Reading With Rover. The community-based nonprofit has more than 75 dog-and-trainer teams that regularly visit libraries, bookstores and, yes, schools in the Seattle area.

How It Works

School programs involving R.E.A.D. are highly structured. Dogs are carefully screened for temperament and then given special obedience training before they become reading buddies. Reading specialists choose the children they believe will benefit the most, and each child is paired with a dog.

Typically, the reader and his/her dog spend about 30 minutes together. First they play, then they sit on the floor and the child begins to read. Afterward, children are welcome to play with their dogs. The same dog meets with the child each time, which helps them develop a trusting and secure relationship. Sometimes, children and their dog listeners get together during school hours, sometimes after. It’s important that the two spend time away from other children so that the child doesn’t have to worry about being criticized.

The dog handlers sit in and gently help the child with mispronounced words and meanings. One of the ways they do this is by telling the child that the dog hasn’t heard that word before and asks if they can explain it. That way the child is less embarrassed because he or she hasn’t made a mistake —it’s the dog who doesn’t understand. The child moves from passive reader to active teacher.

Psychologists who specialize in reading tell us that children who don’t read as well as their peers often are frightened about reading aloud. When called upon to read in class, they’re intimidated. Because they find the experience stressful, something to be avoided, they scrunch down in their chairs, trying to be invisible. Not surprisingly, this usually leads to low self-esteem.

When children interact with dogs, there’s no peer pressure. They don’t feel intimidated. They’re not laughed at. They’re totally accepted. That in turn helps them forget about their limitations. The whole idea behind children reading to dogs is to get them to relax so that reading becomes fun.

A 1983 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania monitored the blood pressures and heart rates of 38 children ages 9 to 15 as they read silently, to an adult and to an adult accompanied by a dog. It showed that having a dog in the room definitely reduces the stress children feel when they read aloud.

The payoff comes in the amount of fun they have during the process and, ultimately, how much learning goes on. When children are asked why they like reading to dogs, they say it’s because the dogs listen to them.

What more could anyone want?

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 90: Summer 2017

Photograph courtesy of R.E.A.D.

Ernest L. Abel is emeritus professor of psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit and past director of Wayne State’s Mott Center for Human Growth and Development.