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

little girl reading a book with a stuffed animal dog
Photo by Dr. Lori Friesen
Kids are learning how to read with the help of furry friends.

Humane education and safety with dogs is also a major component of Friesen’s program. After interviewing Ian Dunbar and other leaders in animal behavior, Friesen decided to integrate the American Humane Association’s “Kids Interacting With Dogs Safely” curriculum into the coursework to encourage both leadership among their peers and confidence in skills such as reading dog body language — skills that last far beyond the end of the program. As the weeks progressed, Zach added more Post-its to his board. “I have to learn 10 hard words,” he said. “I set that goal.” Zach and Zoe, who both have to read to Brody every night, fight over who gets the dog first. For a kid who had to be bribed and cajoled into reading for more than five minutes at a time, this was a huge change. Brody, who gets 40 minutes a day of extra attention and massages, is in heaven.

My Bonework assignments were based on Friesen’s research into what motivates children: I got to write love letters from me and from Brody, which also went onto the kids’ boards. Zach points to the letter from Brody thanking Zach for reading to him. “This one is my favorite.” He pauses. “But yours are nice, too, Mom.”

At the beginning and end of the eight weeks, the participants took a reading test to assess their reading level improvement through the course. Zach’s testing took a little longer than the rest of the kids'. While they were waiting, Zoe sat on the floor with Tango playing a “find the treat” game she learned the week before. “Don’t step too close to Tango,” she warned another child. “It makes her nervous. See? Look at her tail.”

A few minutes later, the teacher emerged with Zach. “Sorry it took so long,” she said. “He improved so much we didn’t have the right level of books for him to read.” Zach pumped his fists before giving his sister a high-five. I sniffled proudly. Over the eight weeks, every child showed demonstrable reading improvement.

“I was thrilled with the results,” Friesen says. She plans to continue How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead and Succeed in her hometown of Palm Springs while she explores ways to make it available to more schools and humane education programs. At the end of the last class, as the kids were putting their graduation caps away, their faces dropped as they realized they would be saying good-bye to Friesen and Tango.

“Dr. Lori?” asked Zach.

“Yes?” said Friesen, leaning down to hear his question.

“Do you baby-sit?”

The program is currently available to just those in the Palm Desert, Calif., area, but Friesen hopes to establish it locally over the next year or so, then turn it into a program other teachers and humane educators can use anywhere in the world. Cost for the program is $350 at this time, but Friesen is fundraising and applying for grants in order to decrease the cost to families. For more information, please visit the website.

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