Some of the world’s very good boys help humans detect cancer, fight wars, and even get their corn chip fix. Recently, scientists added another item to the list of unexpected things that doggos can do: A new study in the Early Childhood Education Journal shows they might also be the key to helping children excel at reading.
In the paper, published May 23, a team of researchers from the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction report that children that read aloud to dogs have much better attitudes about reading than those that don’t. While this may seem counterintuitive — why would kids read to dogs instead of other humans? — the authors reason that doing so presents a less judgmental environment for learning. Reading to a dog, they explain, is less stressful than reading aloud to a room of potentially negative peers. In other words, a pup won’t judge you if you stumble every time you read the word “scissors.”
“Even though skills did not change significantly, I would still endorse animal-assisted intervention for child literacy because attitudes about reading can be a stepping stone to improved reading skills,” study co-author Deborah Linder, D.V.M., tells Inverse. “Additionally, with a longer program or more frequent visits, we may have seen skill improvements, so future studies are needed.”
In the study, Linder and her team divided 28 second-grade public school students, all with average literacy skills for their grade, into two groups. In the first, each kid got to read to a therapy dog for 30 minutes once a week; in the other, students stuck to the standard reading classroom curriculum, which didn’t include dogs. Before and after each these sessions, the kids provided feedback about their attitudes about reading. Their actual reading skills were assessed biweekly.
At the end of the six-week study, the researchers found that the kids who read to dogs had significantly more positive attitudes about the enjoyability of reading compared to those that followed the regular curriculum. This result, the authors explain, supports the benefit of animal-assisted reading interventions, which have been proposed in the past as a way to get kids excited about reading. Other studies have demonstrated that children who are more motivated to read tend to have more advanced reading abilities.
Whether kids read out loud to a dog or other kids didn’t have an effect on their actual reading skills, though. It’s possible that the study wasn’t long enough, or there wasn’t enough frequency in the reading sessions. Additionally, the authors theorize that if the students were at a lower reading level, then the animal-assisted reading intervention could have made a bigger impact on their abilities.
The team behind this study plans to continue studying the effect that reading to dogs has on children, investigating whether it can help decrease children’s anxiety about reading and improve their actual reading skills. Animal-assisted literacy programs have been around since the Reading Education Assistance Dogs initiative, the first high-profile program of its kind, was introduced in 1999, but the actual scientific evidence supporting it has been scattered. Advocates of these programs say that reading to dogs relaxes kids, reduces their blood pressure, and raises their confidence, but wary critics say that more substantiated evidence is needed before dog reading buddies can be widely endorsed.
Dogs may actually be getting something out of this arrangement as well, besides some kid time and cuddles. A 2016 study published in Science found that dogs can recognize positive and negative intonation from human speech, as well as some vocabulary. If you want to increase your reading confidence by reading some prose to your pooch, try to pick a book about “treats” and “parks.”