By Juli Fraga

Two years ago, principal Diane Lau-Yee grew concerned when she saw how family tragedies were impacting her students at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“Some of the students were acting out their feelings of confusion and anger by starting fights with their peers, while other children shut down and stopped participating in class,” says Lau-Yee.

When children are struggling at home, it’s often harder for them to concentrate in school. And if kids experience trauma — such as the death of a family member, divorce or witnessing family or community violence — research shows that kids will have more difficulty tolerating frustration, controlling their impulses and managing their aggression.

Lau-Yee wanted to equip her students with emotional tools that could help them manage these overwhelming feelings. So, she decided to enlist the help of a furry friend named Stanley, a therapeutic dog who is beloved by many children in the community. She hoped that Stanley could teach the kids about empathy, as well as nourish a deeper love of literacy among the students, too.

While many people are familiar with therapeutic pets and how they can help lift up people’s spirits, bringing them into the classroom might sound far-fetched. How can a therapy pet possibly teach children the life lessons of kindness and empathy? Can a pet really alter the way that students feel about learning?

Educational therapist Rebecca Barker Bridges believed that a dog could help students feel more confident about learning, and so she adopted Stanley, a golden retriever.

Stanley
Stanley (Courtesy of Golden Gate Publishing)

“I learned about therapy dogs from a colleague, and I knew that Stanley could help these children,” says Bridges.

She also says that research on pet therapy shows that animals connect people to each other and that this bond strengthens their ability to work together.

“Pets are very nonjudgmental, and their calming presence distills stressful situations,” Bridges says. “For children who feel insecure about their capacity to do things like reading, therapy pets bolster their self-confidence, which reduces their anxiety.”

“Students feel self-conscious about reading because they’re afraid of being judged by students and teachers if they don’t do a ‘good job.’ But Stanley dismantles this fear for them. He makes learning joyful,” says Bridges.

Lau-Yee had learned about Stanley through a colleague, and she invited Bridges and the dog to visit her pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade students during a school assembly.

Meet Stanley“I introduced Stanley to the students, and I read them a book that I wrote about his work as a therapy dog,” says Bridges, whose book is titled “Meet Stanley: The Reading Dog.” The book tells the story of Stanley’s job as a reading dog and how he’s trained to listen to children read. The book also shares that Stanley is an expert listener who is always encouraging, supportive and patient with all children who interact with him.

After the presentation, the students were invited to meet Stanley. Bridges says that Stanley’s presence sparked the children’s curiosity and that they asked him a lot of questions.

“Stanley, what do you like to eat?” asked one student.

“What’s it like to be a therapy dog, do you get paid for your work?” asked another.

“Stanley, do you get a summer vacation from your job?”

A THERAPEUTIC LESSON

Bridges says that therapy pets allow children to focus on the animal instead of feeling self-conscious themselves. She says that this is a therapeutic distraction technique that relieves children of their worries, which helps their performance when reading.

“Children love interacting with Stanley, and this connection also teaches them about kindness and empathy,” she says.

Lau-Yee used Stanley’s visit as a way to create a social and emotional lesson for the students.

“After Stanley’s visit, I told the students that Stanley is a helper who never judges others but offers them a lot of support merely by listening,” she said. “I also explained how people need different forms of support to help them do things like reading, sort through their feelings and solve problems. I encouraged the students to help each other out, too.”

Lau-Yee says that the teachers also used Stanley’s visit to teach the students that there are many unconventional ways to learn things and that his visit also helped foster a love of literacy among the children.

FINDING A READING BUDDY

While Lau-Yee’s students were fortunate to meet Stanley in person, she says that he doesn’t need to make a physical appearance for students to benefit from his services.

“Educators can read Stanley’s book and talk about the ways that we can incorporate service into our learning with trusted friends, such as big buddies, peers and older siblings.”

Bridges, who also visits libraries, says that educators can also reach out to their local SPCA to inquire if they have therapy dogs available. She also says that teachers can use a class pet as a “Stanley substitute.”

Several programs nationwide offer training and canines to help kids with reading, such as Intermountain Therapy Animals’ Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. There are also some organizations like Therapy Dogs International that have community programs called Tail Waggin’ Tutors. They provide therapy dogs that can help children learn how to read, too.

Some schools have a no-pet policy, and in those cases, Bridges recommends using a stuffed animal instead.

“You can apply the same principles to a stuffed animal. The most important thing is to give the child some space so that they can read to their pet (even if it isn’t a real one) in privacy, which helps them to feel safe,” she says.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga

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  • Gardner Umbarger

    What are typically called “therapy” animals are actually just “animal assisted therapy” where interaction with animals is used as a reinforcement for task completion or participation in an preferred activity. They do not carry the legal protections of service or emotional support animals and as such are not universally permitted in public setting.

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  • Hillary Clintub

    Not to be overly critical, but I wonder how this affects the dogs. An endless stream of strange kids and extremely short term relationships of only an hour or less might have some impact on the dogs’ mental states, too. I hope the dogs have good stable homes away from the library if they’re going to be subjected to this sort of environment. Maybe just getting the kids their own pets might do just as well.

    • Lee Perry

      My dogs have LOVED the kids reading. I have a new one and will find very soon how he will do as a READING DOG! I am sure he will enjoy the kids as much as the previous Dogs.

      • Hillary Clintub

        I was just trying to think from the dogs’ perspective and wondering if the dogs didn’t deserve to have their own personal kid like the kids deserve to have their own personal pet so they could both form a longer term personal bond.

    • Lee Perry

      The kids are only strangers for the first visit or two, but the Boys (dogs) remember them rather quickly. I can not say why it works, but it does. The students that we get really need the help and practice. One problem is that the readers that do not need the help sometimes feel “left out”. On Special Occasions, these kids get to read go the dog.

      Their own pets are not the answer. I am not a TEACHER ( just an old map maker), but have been to teach kids to read in a one on one situation. It is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my 75+ years.

    • Hillary M

      Animal Assisted Therapy facillitators are trained to recognize signs of stress in dogs. When the dogs starts to stress pant, get whale eye, wag their tail a certain way, etc. the handler picks up on it immediately, cuts the session short or takes the dog on a break. Otherwise, the results could be disasterous. The dogs are preselected for their docile nature before they’re trained for AAT, but every dog can get stressed. The vast majority of dogs just love the opportunity to be useful and rewarded and thus enjoy it immensely.

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  • Christina Marlow

    While the above article describes the idea of reading therapy dogs, there is more information on the topic than the article was able to include. Multiple correlational studies do support the theory that reading to a therapy dog may improve scores on reading tests in elementary aged children (Kirnan et al. 2016, Hall et al. 2016). According to a meta-analysis of therapy dog studies by Hall et al., the studies, while positive, may not have the strongest set-ups (i.e. small samples, confounding variables, etc.) but they do believe there is potential. Also, although the
    findings are positive, the exact reasons why the therapy dog improves reading is unknown. As the article states, it may be because the animal is non-judgmental or that the animal itself may inspire confidence (Hall et al. 2016). It could also be because the dog provides deliberate practice which involves focusing and monitoring yourself while practicing a task instead of just experiencing the task without much reflective thought (Ericsson 2006). By removing a possible “fear” of being corrected by a teacher, the dog may allow the student to just focus on the reading itself instead of earning approval and inspiring intrinsic motivation, but this is purely conjecture. Therefore, although the preliminary research is promising, it may be worth it for some teachers to wait since the possible costs of bringing in the actual dogs may outweigh the potential benefits.

    If a teacher does have the time and resources to spend on bringing in a dog, how is a reading therapy dog best used? The article lightly touches upon some situations, such as with those going through tough times, in which a therapy dog would be extra useful, but it fails to mention that a reading therapy dog is definitively better for some children over others. Kirnan et al. ran a study in 2016 which introduced a
    therapy dog reading program into a K-5 elementary school for all students. The students took 3 reading tests and they compared the scores to those from the year before. What was especially interesting was that there was no significant difference in scores except for the kindergartners (Kirnan et al. 2016). This means that therapy dogs are best used with those who are just beginning to read rather than those in higher grades. While it may seem tempting and fun to bring in a therapy dog to a 3rd grade class, it really wouldn’t make a significant impact on their overall reading. The reason for this may lie in the theory that reading slowly transitions from using translation rules to convert letters into sounds to using spelling to determine meanings and sounds (Willingham Lecture 2/7/2017). Children past kindergarten may have already switched into using orthography over translation rules through active practice, while kindergartners still need to deliberately practice, hence the usefulness of a reading therapy dog. The kindergartners most need the deliberate practice/benefits the dog might offer.

    Another group that benefits the most from therapy dogs and not mentioned in the article are special education and ESL students. In the same study by Kirnan et al., they found that students in special education and ESL programs were described as more confident in their reading. Also, repeated interactions with therapy dogs have been found to help focus and calm down students on the autism spectrum (Stevenson et al. 2015). Therefore, to get the most out of bringing in a reading therapy dog, the teacher should make sure that the students with reading problems get to read to the dog. The article assumes that the dog would be brought into a typical classroom but it would actually be most beneficial to bring the dog into a smaller group of lower performing students. Time is a precious commodity in the classroom and allocating more time for academic activities such as math and reading correlates with higher rates of student engagement (Rosenshine 2015). Therefore, by utilizing the resource the dog provides by making sure those who would most benefit get to read to it, the time with the other students can be used to focus on other academic areas the other students have trouble with.

    Bringing in therapy dogs for children to read to sounds like a wonderful way to help improve reading but there just is not enough definitive data on the exact benefits yet nor exactly why there are benefits. The research that is there is positive but the effects are not as broadly applicable as they seem. If teachers are to bring in therapy dogs, they should focus on using them in the lower grades and with those that have trouble reading in the first place. Perhaps teachers should focus on the possible reading practice strategies the dog provides, that of allowing students to focus purely on the reading without distraction.

    • Christina Marlow

      Sorry, the first line should read “While the above article describes the idea of reading therapy dogs well,”, there was a slight formatting problem I had that accidentally resulted the deletion of the word “well” when I was reformatting to post and I only noticed it now. Sorry.

  • SKVAM

    Casting shadows on lovable therapy dogs is not recommended when seeking the accolades of the masses, but here it goes. A competent trans disciplinary team with a behavior consultant, a counselor, and a team that does, under the guidance of the behavior consultant, a functional assessment of behaviors and a research based intervention plan along with data and fidelity checks, something that actually makes changes meaningful and longer term, is what is needed. Dogs, innocent lovable furry dogs, should not be a substitute for competence in behavioral methodology that is NON punitive.

    • Lee Perry

      You need to open your mind and go see the results of READING DOGS!! When a student stops reading and says, ” THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME LEARN!!” Comments like this make READING DOG VISITS worth all the time required.

      • SKVAM

        Lee, I have worked with special educators and counselors and provided them research based information on how therapy dogs are used. I have seen them. I have written letters of recommendation to individuals seeking to adopt them for use as therapy dogs, and I’m sorry, but “thanks” is not enough. Empathy and reflection, the two together, are skills that enable an I-Thou relationship, and I can assure you that without a functional assessment, one does not know how to use a therapy dog well for a particular child. Period. Transdisciplinary planning demands cross discipline services, and service dogs’ handlers are part of such teams. Or can be. But IT IS NOT ENOUGH. Period. My mind is open. My ability to reason and read the research on such databases as PubMed and Education Full Text are what fill my open mind, not just emotion. I love the balls of fur. BUT NOT ENOUGH.

  • Lee Perry

    ALLIANCE of THERAPY DOGS in Cheyenne, WY is one a number organizations that test and register or certify THERAPY DOGS. They provide testers, training guidance, owner and dog testing and liability insurance for the members when on Therapy Dog Visits. The dogs go into schools, hospitals, nursing homes, pet therapy for home bond folks, Hospice visits, and almost any place where people need a calm dog and handler to help in stressful situations. I have seen BLOOD PRESSURES LOWERED after petting the dog.

    I have seen many wonder results from Therapy Dog visits. I plan to to keep working with my 2 Registered Therapy Dogs until I can’t go anymore.

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  • Hillary Clintub

    I wonder if reading dogs are more effective than the reading “mothers” we used to have back in the old days. It used to be SOP for mothers to teach their babies to know their numbers, their ABCs, and the names of shapes and colors before they got to school so the kids wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the parents by being unprepared for first grade. Parents used to take an active role in educating their kids and didn’t need dogs to take over the chore…although some little girls still used to read to their dolls as well as teach their dolls manners, social graces and how to act at tea parties.

    • Kimberly Leonardson Hawley

      I take a VERY active role in my children’s education! I have stayed home with them and taught them their ABC’s and 123’s and sent them school ready. However, my youngest is dyslexic and struggles with reading and writing and her golden, Chase is a Godsend! If you see my posted comment, you will see a picture of her reading ALOUD to him. We have spent countless hours listening to her read and reading to her. But the fact that she voluntarily read out loud is a miracle in and of itself. There is much value in what this article is portraying and has very little to do with parent involvement.

      • Hillary Clintub

        I’m not being critical. I’m all for anything that works to get kids to reading on their own. I’m just saying that reading dogs is just one way. As I said, little girls have been reading to their uncomplaining dolls for centuries with probably the same advantages. Reading to dogs, dolls, imaginary friends or their parents is all good.

  • Nici Sandberg

    Here’s a related story about a school counselor who was able to bring READ therapy dogs into her classrooms. It really is an awesome thing for the kids. http://degree.lamar.edu/articles/education/dogs-are-a-kids-best-friend.aspx https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c631441b76ba901ace0719b2a4ac8d6e9276f56340623a86e8499a0beef6d5db.jpg

  • Kimberly Leonardson Hawley

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/280e9e89ba33014282d5f296907bc192ffd4faddf7a3622eca21ea4a58bb93f4.jpg
    My daughter has dyslexia and reading is not her favorite thing unless she is being read to. On a recent road trip, to my utter shock and complete amazement I witnessed her reading aloud to her golden Chase. ????????????

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  • Krystal Lewis

    I am a reading specialist at a k-2 school and can see how a reading dog would benefit our program. I agree with the research that shows that students who read well already would not benefit from reading to a dog. It also makes sense that students who are learning to read and those struggling to read would show improvement with this type of incentive. I have many students whose lack of confidence is the biggest detriment to their reading. Sometimes it’s as simple as a student not seeing themselves as readers. I also see how reading in front of peers and teachers can impact a struggling reader’s performance and can cause anxiety. Struggling readers know they aren’t good readers and are continually judged by their performance through assessments and peer and teacher comments. Peers don’t get why some students can’t read, especially if comes easy to them. Teachers can get frustrated after a student still doesn’t “get it” after working for some time on the same skill. I have also found that struggling readers often think that reading faster means they are better readers, and somehow by doing this they can “trick the system”. But reader faster only makes struggling readers “fast and wrong”. For some struggling readers it is a deficit in their basic reading skills, for some it is practice, for some it is confidence, and for some it is a combination of these. Reading to a dog might be a way for students to improve their reading skills while building up their confidence.

    There is a lot at stake if you don’t know how to read well. It can impact every part of a student’s academic career and can have life long consequences. Introducing a positive program like this one to a reading intervention program may be one way to encourage struggling readers. I can see great benefits for many of my struggling readers. Dogs don’t judge, can’t give negative feedback, and can show patience and empathy. Humans are capable of showing empathy and patience too, but not all the time or in every situation. Dogs are not like humans and are able to respond consistently and genuinely when listening to students read. What a great way to encourage a love of reading and for a struggling reader to discover that they are a reader all on their own.

  • Abby Malloy

    Working in an Autistic Support classroom, I can see the benefits of having a therapy animal in the school. It is important to build confidence among students to help them feel comfortable. Reducing anxiety in the school setting can lead to greater success for the child’s future. I have also had parents share stories and have seen videos where dogs have helped calm children and adults diagnosed with autism during spells of frustration and anxiety.

  • Tom

    I am in love with this idea! I have a few children of my own, 1 of which is learning to read.

    I recently found a lady who is taking this to the next level – she creates books that are personalized to the dog’s name and favorite words that excite them. This excitement is positive encouraging feedback for the kids who then want to read to them more! Such a cool idea!!!

    She’s trying to get this off the ground so anything you can do to spread the word to help fund her kickstarter would be amazing and very appreciated!! Blessings.
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/496151690/waggity-tales-books-for-dogs

    her website is http://waggitytales.com

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