Reading to dogs may have benefits for children
What’s on your dog’s summer reading list?
A small pilot study by researchers at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University provides preliminary, but suggestive evidence that reading aloud to man’s best friend can have positive effects on children’s desire and ability to read.
“The benefit of the dog is they’re not judgmental, and they are great listeners,” said Lisa Freeman, a professor in the department of clinical sciences at Tufts, who said the study was spurred by observations that having a canine audience seemed to increase children’s engagement with reading. “It really builds their confidence.”
The health effects of pet ownership have been the subject of a number of small studies, which have been far from definitive. Some research suggests that pet ownership provides a wellness boost -- one study found that dog owners who walked their dogs were 34 percent more likely to get 150 minutes of walking exercise per week compared with non-dog owners. But others have found pet ownership correlated with negative health outcomes, like a study of 424 patients admitted to the hospital with acute coronary syndrome, which found that pet owners, especially cat owners, were more likely to die or be hospitalized again.
For years, Freeman said, she had observed what appeared to be the beneficial effects of a reading program that paired children with canine listeners. But there was no evidence to support the anecdotal observations. So the Tufts researchers designed a simple study.
Over a five-week period last summer, 18 second-graders at the Grafton Public Library were randomly divided into two groups: for 30 minutes each week, half read aloud to a dog and half read to a person.
The children were allowed to choose whatever books they wanted, and read to the same dog each week, settling in on a large dog bed with their canine companion. Freeman noted that children seemed to prefer to read books about animals, seeming to want to choose stories the dogs could relate to.
“The kids seem to particularly like the dog-themed books; they seem to think the dogs really enjoy hearing about those,” Freeman said. Those who read aloud to a person might be corrected or prompted if they made a mistake, while the children reading to the dogs would be corrected through the dogs, meaning that the handler might say something like, “I don’t think she understood that last word.”
At the end of the five weeks, the children’s abilities were measured. This was a small sample, and the results were not statistically significant, but researchers saw a signal of a difference, with an increase in the words read per minute by the children in the dog group, and a decrease among children who spent the time reading to humans.
The researchers also measured the change in the children’s attitudes toward reading using a survey that involved a cartoon cat -- Garfield. The survey showed Garfield in a range of moods, from extremely satisfied to very upset, and was used to judge childrens’ attitudes toward reading. The dog reading group showed a slight favorable increase in their feelings toward reading, and the control group underwent a slight decrease. No children dropped out of the dog program, whereas a third of the children dropped out of the control group.
Ultimately, the researchers hope to be able to expand the study to a larger group, to see whether the effects hold up.
“Many dogs -- my dog, when she recognizes the building that the reading program is in, she gets very excited, really excited to go, so they seem to enjoy this too,” Freeeman said. “That’s important -- having everybody happy on both sides of the leash is going to be very important.”
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.