Therapy Dogs Work Wonders for Struggling Readers

A group of eighth graders in need of academic intervention in Virginia are now more confident readers. Never underestimate the power of a pooch.
Standard Poodle Remy and his handler, Zane, coach a student through a tough passage.

Standard Poodle Remy and his handler, Zane, coach a student through a tough passage.

Each and every day, librarians try to promote student literacy in positive and personal ways, while at the same time integrate the latest technologies. But what happens when those modern approaches are not enough to motivate students to pick up books? One low-tech, viable option: canine companions! Here at Jackson P. Burley Middle School in Charlottesville, VA, we have successfully utilized therapy dogs to engage eighth grade at-risk readers in 1:1 reading.

In the beginning

Our goals for an alternative reading enrichment program were straightforward: to increase both fluency at and positive feelings about reading. We hit upon two impressive pieces of research which discussed an interesting idea that seemed to accomplish just that—namely, "Children Reading To Dogs: A Systematic Review Of The Literature" published in the journal Plos ONE and "The Effect Of An Animal-Assisted Reading Program On The Reading Rate, Accuracy And Comprehension Of Grade 3 Students: A Randomized Control Study" published in Child & Youth Care Forum. In view of the significant results of these studies, it seemed logical to pursue a program of this type. I began by calling my local SPCA International Global Animal Rescue organization. Their coordinator found us two “Paw-sitive Therapy Teams,” which were Remy, a 2-year-old standard poodle and Dancer, a 5-year-old Rottweiler, each with their respective handler.

The planning stage

While it’s not unusual for therapy dogs to visit schools or libraries, the program we were considering was not a one-off special event. Therefore, we had to give careful thought to logistics. We communicated with the handlers to make sure they could work around the students’ sometimes fluid schedules. Bringing relatively large animals into a public school admittedly posed a few challenges. The first order of business was obtaining permission slips. Students who were uncomfortable around dogs for any reason, including allergies, could, of course, opt out. It’s important to have those permission slips in hand, though, for the kids who did want to participate to avoid problems down the road. Next, we had to think about a space. Often, the library was occupied by other classes at our preferred times for the reading sessions. We worked those conflicts out by hosting the dogs in the classroom of Michelle Harley, a remedial language arts teacher. A misstep was not effectively communicating about the program to the entire school. While we had advised the principal and assistant principal, the larger school community was a bit…surprised! see a giant Rottweiler strolling down the hallway. Lessons learned: The dogs should wear their vests at all times to promote a sense of safety, and an all-staff email goes a long way. Despite his rather imposing appearance, Rottweiler Dancer had a lot of fans at the school.

Rottweiler Dancer knows how to command a room!

The program in action

While hanging at the library can be considered nerdy in some circles, hanging with a Rottweiler in the library can't ever be anything but cool. Every Tuesday, six eager students were able to participate. Reading turns were set at 15-minute intervals, as therapy teams work best in 45-minute sessions. The students would sit next to or lean on the dog and read. Most of the time, the students would read to the dogs from assigned novels, but would occasionally bring a leisure reading option. Graphic novels were often a favorite choices—with students explaining what was happening in the images to the dog. The sessions seemed to be most helpful when the books were at or slightly below the student's Lexile measure. Otherwise, frustration with the text could cause the student to associate the library with negative emotions. One of the handlers in particular was very good about engaging students in discussion, asking questions about the plot, making real-world connections, and offering praise when improvement was evident. Most of the children had a favorite dog. We tried very hard to rotate in a fair way. While both dogs were extremely gentle, some children perceived the poodle as a bit less intimidating than the Rottweiler. One student, Danielle, would be the first with her hand up to go with Remy. He made a huge impact on her independent reading level. She has blossomed from a reluctant reader into a library frequent flier.

The student perspective

Positive results were obvious pretty quickly. “I remember the first session we had in the library,” recalls Harley. “It was mid-February. After returning to class, I asked the students to say a few words about the experience."  These three comments were typical of the bunch, and speak volumes: “Remy was neat. It was like he was really listening to me read. I will try to read to my dog at home." "Honestly, I do not like to read but it was relaxing reading and talking to Dancer and his trainer." "If schools did this all the time, I would want to come to school and do my work more." From that moment on, the therapy dogs and their handlers were openly welcomed by all. Reluctant readers became more motivated, wanting to read aloud more often even when the dogs were not there. The students seemed to feel more comfortable in the classroom environment in general.

Future Steps

We hope to secure more therapy dogs and their handlers to volunteer. We have spoken to several of the handlers about giving short lectures on how dogs become therapy dogs, as well as the process of becoming a handler. Additionally, the program is expanding to include more teachers. This program could very well be beneficial school-wide—and not just to the students. Harley recalls a morning when Remy and his handler paid a surprise visit to her classroom. “Remy walked directly towards me and stood quietly in front of me and did not want to leave my side. The students knew I had recently returned from an extended absence due to a death in my family and was in a solemn mood. I remember one student commenting, ‘Ms. Harley, the dog knows you are sad. He can help with that, too.’”   Ida Mae Craddock is the librarian at Jackson P. Burley Middle School in Charlottesville, VA.  Michelle Harley is a language arts teacher at Jackson P. Burley Middle School in Charlottesville, VA.
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Val Stark

Our Library, Quincy Public Library in Quincy, Illinois, has had a program for several years where children visit the Humane Society and read to cats. It's very popular. The children love it, our Children's Programmer loves it, and the cats love it! It helps with reading skills and literacy for the 2 legged, and socialization for the 4 legged. It's a win-win situation.

Posted : May 27, 2016 02:23

Maria Gianferrari

This is so wonderful! What a great program! Congrats to your students! I live in Leesburg, VA, and I have a picture book coming out next year with Roaring Brook called Hello Goodbye Dog, and the dog character becomes a reading dog by the end of the book :). I hope to set up some events with reading dogs.

Posted : May 25, 2016 01:24

Roseann Buchner

Sophie, a 16 month old golden-doodle, comes to my first grade classroom in Eureka, CA, every day. She is trained a a service dog for me, assisting with specific medical needs... but has also worked with a local trainer since she was a young puppy to work with the children at our elementary school. My first graders love to read to Sophie. She is the best of listeners. Sophie also works with troubled students calming their behaviors, and serving as a reward when positive behaviors are demonstrated. This article confirms what we know about the benefits gained from therapy dogs. The teachers at Washington Elementary are glad to have Sophie at our school, and firmly believe that every school should have a dog like Sophie!

Posted : May 24, 2016 01:50

IdaMae Craddock

I agree! They make such a difference in the tone of the school day.

Posted : May 24, 2016 07:38


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