children reading with dogs

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.”

little girl reading a book with a stuffed animal dog

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.