How the Family Dog Is Helping Kids Read, Lead and Succeed

Photo by Dr. Lori Friesen
How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead and Succeed is an eight-week program that integrates literacy, humane education and life success skills.

Seven-year-old Zachary stared at the page of the book in front of him, chewing his lip in concentration. “The dog began to g-g- ... What’s this word?”

“Remember your reading tools?” said his sister, Zoe, leaning over from where she was reading her own book. “Try reading the rest of the sentence.”

“The dog began to g- ... the bone in his paws.” He squinted at the illustration, resting his hand on the fluffy Golden Retriever sitting next to him. “Gnaw! That’s right!”

Beaming, he gave the dog a treat and went back to the rest of his story, pointing out to his dog, Brody, the particularly funny parts. After he finished the book, he took out a Post-it and wrote “gnawed” on the paper, dropping it into a bag labeled “Tricky Trouble Words Bag.” Once mastered, the word goes onto his “Doggone Brilliant” poster hanging in our kitchen.

Zach and Zoe are part of a group of children participating in How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead and Succeed, an eight-week program devised by educator Dr. Lori Friesen as a way to integrate literacy, humane education and life success skills. I signed them up out of curiosity. Could our goofy dog really help them become better readers? But we left the program with so much more than a few new vocabulary words. More than a simple “read to a dog” program, this class requires the involvement of the kids, the family dog and even me. Each of us has weekly “Bonework” assignments supporting the week’s new skill, a fact the kids are happy to remind me of every day.

A new program called 'How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead and Succeed,' is getting dramatic results. Incorporating dogs into learning comes naturally to Friesen, who taught elementary school around the world for 10 years before returning to graduate school. While teaching second grade, Friesen noticed the natural affinity the children had for her Maltipoo, Tango, and decided to allow the children to earn one-on-one “Tango Time” in the classroom’s Reading Corner by exhibiting acts of kindness.

Soon she noticed an unexpected benefit. “Some of the little boys I had a hard time engaging started bringing in books to read to Tango,” she says. “They would be arguing on the playground about which books she liked the best!”

Friesen was so thrilled with the results that she decided to pursue a Ph.D. while exploring the role of animal-assisted reading programs in child literacy. This research resulted in the development of How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead and Succeed. Reading programs using dogs as a tool to help boost kids’ confidence have been around for years, but Friesen wanted a program even more comprehensive than the usual animal-assisted literacy programs, which often involve a dog the child doesn’t know.

In How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead and Succeed, children read to their own dogs five days a week at home. Each week, the children practice a new skill; it may be a game, a reading comprehension strategy or even a meditation with their dogs. For Friesen, fun is key. “If kids like doing something, they’ll want to do it more,” she says. “Children’s test scores improve when they enjoy doing daily reading at home.”

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