GRAFTON, Mass. — Not only are dogs man's best friend, they might possibly help your child's reading skills to boot.
According to a pilot study published by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, a group of second-graders who read aloud to a dog experienced a slight gain in their reading ability and attitude toward reading, while another group of second-graders who were paired up with veterinary school volunteers (all adults) experienced a decrease on both measures.
Dr. Lisa M. Freeman, one of the study's authors and the research mentor for lead author Dawn Lenihan, a third-year veterinary student, said what is statistically significant about the study is no second-grade readers who were paired up with canine-counterparts left the group, while one third of those readers paired up with humans failed to complete the study.
"For those of us who participated in this reading program, it is very easy to see how beneficial it is for the children who participate, both in their excitement about the reading and their improvement in reading skills over a very short time period," said Freeman, professor of Clinical Sciences in Nutrition at the school.
The study was conducted for five weeks last summer at the Grafton (Mass.) Public Library. Children read for a half-hour to an attentive two-legged or four-legged friend. The participating dogs are enrolled in the Reading Education Assistance Dogs Program, a nonprofit organization that encourages children to read through the use of therapy animals.
All of the study's investigators (including Grafton Public Library's children and youth services librarian Amanda Diurba and Cummings School Shelter Medicine Director Emily McCobb) are also active in Tufts Paws for People, an animal visitation group at Tufts.
Diurba, the owner of Jack, a 5-year-old English pointer-Labrador retriever mix, who was on standby for the study, said the enrichment program for beginner or "hesitant" readers started in 2005 at the library. While the study was small, she said it received positive results that children who read with the dogs get higher scores in word recognition and in reading motivation than the children who read to an adult.
"I can see how children are progressing by the degree of difficulty of the book titles they are choosing," Ms. Diurba said. "At three weeks, something happens in the brain, the comfort level, whatever, and whatever little issues those children are having individually seemed to lessen mightily, go away. It actually ends up going away."
Freeman and Diurba both agree reading to a dog is a great way to build confidence and reading skills in a child. The study found the lowest level of stress for a child was when he was reading to a dog, while the highest level was when reading to one of his peers.
"One of the wonderful things about dogs is that they are wonderful listeners," Freeman said. "They have unconditional love. They don't judge us any way. I think they are really wonderful sources to partner with children to help them learn to read."
"The children are not reading at home," Diurba said. "They are not reading at school. They are reading on a dog bed with a dog that acts silly. The dog talks to them. The dog gives them kisses. The dog uses its paws to keep the child's place. The dog watches them as the child reads. You have that eye-to-eye interaction, and it's just magic."
In addition, Freeman and Diurba said the dogs really seem to enjoy being read to by the children.
"When we come in as a group and the dogs are there waiting with their handlers, dogs' ears are up and forward, dogs' tails are wagging. Dogs are smiling," Diurba said. "When it's over, the children leave. Ears are back. Tails are down. Nobody's smiling. The dogs love it as much as kids do. You can see the difference."