In recent years there has been a rise in the popularity of animal-assisted interventions, specifically ‘reading dogs’. This is of course different from your average pet dog Spot; these ‘reading dogs’ are highly trained to rest next to the child, usually with their head on the child’s leg, whilst the child reads to them.
Perhaps the popularity has been fuelled by recent reports showing that there has been a decline in a child’s reported enjoyment and frequency of reading (Ecklund & Lamon, 2008). Unfortunately, as frequency of reading is directly related to attainment (Clark & Douglas, 2011), this is an issue.
Unsurprisingly, there is not much research in the field as it is a very new area. However, anything that is available is very encouraging. One of the debates is exactly how the dog helps to improve reading performance.
Perhaps the presence of a dog creates a feeling of safety and an unjudged environment; this can lead to children successfully attempting tricky tasks, leading to an increase in self-esteem. Research has claimed that the addition of a classroom dog improved children’s self-esteem over a 9-month period, compared to classes without dogs (Bergensen, 1989).
Interestingly, the presence of a dog can reduce the physiological effects of stress, such as demonstrating a reduction in blood pressure when reading to a dog (Friedmann et al., 1983). Moreover, children with autism and insecure attachment have been shown have higher cortisol levels when in educational settings, which is not ideal conditions for learning. Studies have shown that the presence of a dog can reduce cortisol awakening in these children (Beets et al., 2012; Viau et al., 2010), which may then create more ideal learning conditions.
Another idea is that animals act as a ‘social lubricant’ to help with interactions for with others humans (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2002) as well as a ‘social buffer’ for the more stressful social interactions (McNicholas & Collis, 2006). This feeling of social support is believed to be important for helping children to engage with reading, which is sometimes a very stressful activity (Jalongo, 2005).
Animals affect our attention and engagement as part of a ‘cave man reaction’ to seeing animals and needing to ascertain whether they are a threat or not. Research has shown that canine-assisted interventions help reduce problematic ADHD symptoms (Schuck, 2013) by improving engagement and attention. This has also been replicated in typically developing children in a classroom setting (Gee et al., 2009).
Does this apply to all children?
No. Of course not. If a child has had a difficult experience with animals or perceives them less positively, then they are less likely to show improvements through animal interactions (Friedmann, 2000; Fiedmann, Son & Tsai, 2000). Therefore, each child needs to be assessed before beginning an animal-assisted intervention.
So, there is not one reason as to why animal-assisted interventions work to improve children’s reading ability, but they do work. A really helpful flowchart below has been draw up by Hall, Gee & Mills (2016), which nicely sums out how a child’s reading may be improved through animal-assisted interventions.