Therapy Dogs for Reading: Boosting Confidence in Literacy

Lea Jaratz

Therapy Dogs for Reading Programs

It must be something about their deep sighs, the warm snuggles, or even just a second set of eyes keeping watch on the world, but it’s almost impossible for me to be anxious when I’m with my dogs. Any time I need to rehearse something or work through something awkward, I do it in front of one of them. Whether it’s running through a presentation or practicing my Italian vocabulary words, they never give me grief when I slip up. Knowing that they get a hug at the end is enough to keep their attention.

If someone in your home struggles with the written word, try changing up the audience. It’s likely that your child is more at ease and more confident when his trusted best friend is snuggled up next to him, and this added boost might help him to read aloud with less hesitation. It’s true. Imagine that. A dog can’t read, but he could help early readers boost their confidence.

Therapy Dogs International, and many other pet-therapy based programs have found great success in their reading programs. Groups like “Tail Waggin Tutors” partner up calm, well-trained pets with kids at schools and libraries. Instead of reading in front of impatient classmates or intimidating adults, kids cuddled up next to a contented dog may find that their inhibitions drop, and they begin to enjoy reading aloud more. Once they start to feel more at ease while reading, their confidence increases, lending itself to continued literacy improvements. Improved comfort levels with reading can domino into better academic progress and even a better attitude towards school itself.

Special needs children especially benefit, as the dog does not judge their dyslexia, their autism, or their speech disorder. Instead, they find a friend that is eager to hear what they have to say, and sits patiently by for about 15 minutes per week. For some kids, that 15 minutes is the highlight of their week.

How to Start Reading Therapy at Home

If you’ve got a dog, cat, or otherwise patient pet, your kid has all the support he needs to start pet-assisted reading therapy right his own bedroom. Start out with short sessions once or twice a week. It may be best to have sessions after a quick walk, when everyone has gotten their sillies out and can sit down quietly. Choose books with topics that your child most enjoys, but you can’t go wrong with a silly book about animals to get them loosened up. (Walter the Farting Dog, anyone?)

How Can Your Dog Help Other Readers?

Participating in therapy programs with your pet is generally not as easy as “show up and listen.” Most reading programs partner with a therapy group, because the group has administered some sort of testing and assessment of both the animal and the handler for suitability. Therapy pets must be at ease in a wide variety of environments, as they may encounter wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, elevators, and other “strange” things in the course of their work. In order to participate, visiting pets are required to be impeccably groomed and vetted, making the visit quite an event for everyone involved.

Unforeseen benefits

If you’ve got a particularly shy dog, reading to him can increase his comfort level too. A dog soon realizes that nothing is expected of him, but he enjoys listening passively to the quiet sound of your voice. Since the arrival of our daughter, we regularly read to Kayden and the little one together, which has helped him to feel included in our activities and recognize that she will sometimes sit quietly if he does.

Many therapy dog handlers remark about the lasting impact their pet has had on the children it works with. Often, children have never encountered firsthand a well-behaved, social dog. These dogs have the potential to change a child’s feelings towards animals in general, helping them to leave their fears and uncertainties behind.

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