Sit. Stay. Read: How Dogs Can Help Improve Literacy
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2018 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
One of the best literacy teachers Jane Swire knows is her dog, Blizzard.
About three years ago, the Grade 7 and 8 teacher at John T. Tuck Public School in Burlington, ON, began volunteering with St. John Ambulance’s therapy dog program. Along with visiting nursing homes, she and her nine-year-old Alaskan Malamute also visit the local library once a week during the school year as part of the organization’s Paws 4 Stories program.
As part of the program, volunteers visit libraries or schools with their pets, who have all been evaluated by the organization. The volunteers sit with children while they read to the dogs for half-hour visits. In schools, the programs typically run for 8 to 12 weeks. Library programs may be shorter.
Swire admits that despite 26 years of teaching, she doubted at first how helpful dogs could be to students. “I don’t think I understood it. I don’t think people understand it until they actually see it.”
She has seen dogs help students through stressful situations—something she says is more needed today than before. She has also seen Blizzard help reluctant readers grow to love reading. “I’m the person on the end of her leash,” she says. “[Blizzard’s] the one doing all the magic.”
Swire and Blizzard sit with a child on the floor of the library room designated for the program. Swire holds the leash while the child reads to Blizzard. Each child spends about half an hour with the dog; Swire usually sees two children each week. Children pet Blizzard and snuggle up with her as they read the books.
“Reading is, number one, practice. And the more you practice, the better you get at it,” says Swire. Children, however, may not want to practice if they feel they might be judged if they struggle.
“Reading is also [about building] confidence and having somebody [who] is non-judgemental that will help you out if you’re struggling on a word,” Swire adds. “That feels nice. It really encourages these children to flower and become confident in their reading abilities.”
“Basically, we’re just there to develop a love of reading in the child,” says Leslie Jack, the acting therapy dog coordinator for St. John Ambulance in Ontario. A few years ago, the organization had to ask schools to consider bringing the dogs in for weekly visits. Now, they can’t keep up with the demand.
Some schools, Jack says, would have their teams come in every day if possible. “As people realize the benefits, the teachers love it.” What they may not like, she says, is the waiting list for the program—it can be a year long.
The organization always makes it clear to schools and libraries that they aren’t coming in to teach students, and that the volunteers have no expectation the children’s reading will improve. Teachers select the students who will participate in the school programs, so it’s often reluctant readers who come. But any child can attend the programs at the library, Jack says. “They don’t have to improve. They do improve, but they don’t have to. That’s not our purpose.”
Reading to dogs helps build children’s self-esteem, she says. “Usually if a child is struggling with reading, there’s a whole background of things. It’s not just reading—it’s a whole package,” Jack explains, noting children often have low self-esteem because of their poor reading. Reading can make them nervous, and the dogs absorb the children’s anxiety.
Volunteers emphasize children aren’t reading to them—they’re reading to the dogs. Swire’s dog will reach out a paw to the child, and Swire will tell the child this means Blizzard wants to hear more about a picture. “They’ll have total conversations with her,” she says.
If Jack hears a student struggling with a word, she will tell them the dog is having a hard time understanding them and needs them to try to say the word again.
“We never say, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘You’re not getting it right,’” says Jack. “There’s no negativity at all. We encourage them to read to the dog: ‘The dog doesn’t understand. The dog needs their help to understand the story.’”
Children also feel special because they are able to read to a dog. This makes reading exciting for them, something they anticipate instead of dread. These programs give children a way to interact in the school community that allows them to “shine a little bit more,” says Nicole Little, a volunteer with Pacific Animal Therapy Society (PATS) in Victoria, BC. She began volunteering with PATS specifically so she and her dog could be part of the Paws and Tales reading program.
The organization works with local schools to develop reading programs best suited for their needs. Sometimes this means working with some children individually, other times volunteers bring dogs into classes so all the students get to share the dog.
The dogs motivate children to develop skills other than reading, says Little. They become ambassadors for the program and want to tell others about it. Sometimes, she says, they write about the dogs for assignments, or write letters and poems to the dogs.
“There’s an increased desire to describe the experience to other people,” Little notes. She has a collection of cards and letters that students have written to her dog. She says one student would still come to meet and her and her dog even after she had stopped participating in the Paws and Tales program. “It’s just a really fantastic bond that gets formed.”
Despite this, some schools may hesitate to participate in similar programs. Little says teachers who are interested should do their research, and suggests offering the program as a pilot project or a test. The teachers should be ready to answer questions from administrators.
Therapy dogs are different from service animals or emotional support animals, says Jack. Service animals, including guide dogs and emotional support animals, are trained to work with a specific person. They assist people who have various disabilities or are assigned to help an individual with emotional needs.
Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are “feel-good dogs that we share with everyone,” Jack explains. “They’re our pets and we share them with others.” The dogs in St. John Ambulance’s Paws 4 Stories program have been specifically tested to see if they can stay calm during stressful situations, like school bells and fire alarms ringing, and if they can work with children. They are all vaccinated, and the teams are insured, says Jack.
Schools are often worried about allergies. Volunteers bring blankets for the dogs to sit on and take them home with them at the end of the visits, says Jack. They can’t guarantee someone won’t have an allergic reaction, she adds, but participation “is a choice. It’s not like we’re throwing this dog into an area where there may be children with allergies.” Parents or guardians agree to have children be part of the program, she adds.
These programs don’t just benefit children, either. The Alliston & District Humane Society in Ontario has run reading programs since March. Emily Day, the society’s dog coordinator, spent two years researching best practices for the program.
Children read with dogs or cats and other small animals. Parents must be with their children if they’re reading to the dogs. There’s an educator, such as a teacher or speech language pathologist, available during each reading time to help the students, but volunteers are clear with parents that the program isn’t about literacy improvement. “The kids are coming in to practise something they already know,” she says.
They’re also helping the animals, Day adds. Often, dogs and cats may just want to play with people. If the animals are going to be properly socialized, they need to learn not all time is playtime. “Someone may just come in and want to watch some cartoons or TV or sit and read a book. The dogs or cats, they need to know that it’s not time to play. So this actually helps them move towards adoption.”
It also helps children learn more about pet ownership, says Day, noting that most animals at the shelter are there because their owners can no longer take care of them, for example because of death, divorce, or illnesses. “A lot of people assume that a shelter is a place for runaways, and it’s not. It’s a place for animals when life gets tough for their people.” Day hopes that the program will help kids “understand that pet ownership should be forever.”
More importantly, these programs reinforce the value of listening. Animals can’t always be in the classroom, but teachers can learn to listen to their students.
Technology has, in a lot of ways, made it harder for children to listen and to know they are being listened to, says Swire. Students like to read to the dogs because they know the dogs will listen to them. Teachers need to do the same, she advises.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON.