Four years ago Craig Madison, a third grade teacher at El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma, California, was wrestling with a problem that’s become increasingly common. “We were trying to turn struggling readers, who had been discouraged by over-testing in school, back into readers who loved books and rediscovered reading for pleasure.” He and other teachers at the El Verano School started a Summer Reading Academy, which he says was a “resounding success” due to many factors, one of which was both crucial and unorthodox: “literacy dogs” and their human handlers from an organization called 4Paws.
4Paws runs a program called Readers of the Pack, which pairs trained dogs and their handlers with schools and libraries with the focus of improving kids’ literacy through the simple act of having children read to a calm, non-judgmental dog.
The idea is that many kids, especially those who are struggling with reading, might be more comfortable with dogs than with people. And the anecdotal evidence supporting these programs is overwhelming. Michelle Lua, who works with her retired racing greyhound, Whitney, for Readers of the Pack, tells a story of one first-grade student who had never spoken in the classroom. She would come to Lua and Whitney and have books read to her. “I finally asked her if she was ever going to read to us,” says Lua. In April, the girl “brought two books, sat down, and began reading the first one. The entire class became silent. They had never heard her speak.” The girl, says Lua, “finished the first book and opened the second one and began reading. She has not shut up since.”
“People really don’t understand how relaxed children become with a dog,” says Joanne Yates, the president of Readers of the Pack, noting that she has spent a lot of time with ESL students, whose experiences “are sometimes brutal. They are teased for an accent, don’t always understand the words, and so they withdraw. Eventually, they simply give up or read what they can to get by. But it affects the rest of the school career (not positively), and consequently, their success in finding jobs they are good at or enjoy.”
Like many people, dog handlers tend to like working in successful schools, says Yates, and don’t always appreciate the unique challenges faced by children who are still learning English. But “even by going once a week, we’ve seen some huge changes in students’ attitudes and abilities.”
Her observations aren’t just fluff. A study of third grade students who read to a trained dog for 10-15 minutes once a week found that their reading fluency increased by 12 percent. For homeschoolers in the study, the increase was 30 percent. And one comprehensive review paper found that using therapy dogs in reading programs increased reading skill by at least two grade levels.
The authors of that paper also noted a particular impact for children with disabilities, especially when it comes to inclusion. One study they looked at showed that a child without disabilities was “10 times more likely to interact with a peer who had disabilities” if the disabled child had a dog with them.
But these effects aren’t just about inclusion and, crucially, aren’t just about dogs.
Dr. Annie Petersen, the founder and president of the Association for Human-Animal Bond Studies, has made the use of animals, especially small animals, in the classroom her life’s work. Among many other programs, once a month she takes animals like rabbits, rats, and, recently, a snake to the Braille Institute. The children there, some of whom are completely blind, get to handle the animals and get acquainted with their habits and care. Many of the kids, she says, have never had an animal at home. “Most of them are terrified of animals because they’ve never been around any.”
Petersen estimates that 99 percent of the children she sees at the Braille Institute have other physical disabilities that will prevent them from taking care of animals for the rest of their lives, but in the classroom they can learn a great deal through touch, scent—she once brought in a skunk—and discussion. One child, who’s on the autism spectrum, calms down the moment an animal is placed in his hands.
The use of animals therapeutically or as learning partners seems to be particularly effective for children on the autism spectrum, according to an assessment of 49 studies reviewed in a paper on animal-human relations.
While dogs are often the most popular therapeutic or facility animal, Petersen says there are many reasons to use smaller animals instead, such as fear of canines, exposure to dog fighting, or cultural aversion. “In San Diego County we have a rather large Somali population, and I found that many of the parents would not allow their children to be involved in our programs because of the incorporation of dogs.” Petersen did some research and found that in many Somali families it is believed that dogs are dirty, spread disease, and are dangerous. “I would do a lesson on dog-safety, but would bring in a small animal so the children could have an animal interaction.” Her favorite animals to work with are rats because they’re intelligent and make great pets, but culturally rats can be a hard sell so she usually starts out with rabbits or guinea pigs.
Petersen recently won a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation and Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation to study the effect of small animals in the classroom on literacy. “My hypothesis,” she says, “is that we will see student improvement in literacy studies due to the presence of rabbits during group lessons.” Petersen will come to the classroom with her rabbits three days a week for 20 minutes, during which the children will be able to hold and read to the rabbits, depending on how the teacher structures the reading lesson. The physical interaction is important. “The difference between seeing an animal across the room versus feeling that warm, living body next to you, it’s really profound,” says Petersen. “And the animal doesn’t care if you’re not the best reader, if you don’t have a lollipop in your lunch box, if you’re nervous.”
Ultimately Petersen’s goal is to have these small animals in the classroom as a stress reducer, whether it’s from reading, test anxiety, or other reasons. This hope connects with her other initiatives, such as a program she’s working on with a center for children who are being transitioned from abusive homes or going into foster care. Her programs benefit the animals, too, who are all rescued animals, usually from the Humane Society.
Both Petersen and the Readers of the Pack team believe that using an animal to enable literacy will ripple out into the rest of children’s learning. A great deal of literacy success is dependent on confidence. Animals—whether they’re trained dogs, rescued rabbits, guinea pigs, or pet rats—can help children, especially struggling readers or those with learning or physical disabilities, relax into a safe, non-judgmental space to work on all aspects of their reading skills. Including, most importantly, learning to love it.
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