Dr Emma Vardy is speaking today at the Royal Society of Medicine’s meeting, People ‘need’ pets: exploring the psycho-social benefits of the human/animal relationship.
‘We know that animals can be beneficial when it comes to improving mental health and wellbeing. Therapy dogs, which are specially selected and trained because of their calm, placid natures, are already used in schools to help children who have social and emotional issues. However, there is a growing interesting in to whether therapy dogs can help children to read better too.
Therapy dogs, which are specially selected and trained because of their calm, placid natures, are already used in schools to help children who have social and emotional issues. However, there is a growing interesting in to whether therapy dogs can help children to read better too.
In the US, the practice started as far back as 1999 with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) scheme and the UK now has initiatives of its own, including the Bark and Read scheme supported by the Kennel Club. The idea is that a dog helps create a more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere and children who struggle to read can benefit from the non-judgemental presence of a loyal, loving listener.
For our small pilot study, we wanted to look more deeply at how dogs can impact on different aspects of children’s reading, including reading comprehension, reading attitudes and self-esteem. We worked with two primary schools in the West Midlands who were already running reading dog programmes. The reading dog programme lasted for six weeks, and the children completed measures pre and post- the programme; these children were compared to a control group who did not read to a dog.
There was no set pattern and we didn’t insist on any particular kind of interaction. The child could sit next to the dog and read to it, or sit further away and read to him or herself. The dog could do what it liked too, so could get up and walk around the room for example. Some children were more wary at the start and became more engaged with the pet as the weeks went on.
What we found was that children who had a dog with them during reading sessions did show improvements after the six week period, although it was not significant. In both cases, scores showed movement going in the right direction towards positivity and enjoyment of reading.
We also spoke to the children who took part, and the ones who interacted with the dog, said that they had really enjoyed the experience and looked forward to the sessions. They gave many reasons to explain why this was the case, including the fact that there was no one judging them or interrupting them and this, as a result, reduced their fear of failure.
Therapy dogs are a low-cost intervention that could prove to be helpful in aiding children who struggle to read. One of the issues is actually recruiting dogs, and their owners, into schemes such as this, and we would encourage more people to think about letting their dogs be assessed by organisations such as Pets as Therapy and Therapy Dogs Nationwide.
This study was small and of short duration but we would now like to organise a larger-scale study for a longer period of time to get more definitive answers.