I have to say, that title sounds a little ridiculous. But in Australia at least, the number of dogs exceeds the population of children 15 years and under. Being a staple part of so many households, scientists are interested in how they affect our social, emotional and physical wellbeing.
And they decided that getting children (in this instance, lower-performing secondary students) to read to a dog was better than reading to a teacher. It improved their mood, motivation and reading performance, according to this study published in June this year.
They noted that previous studies had shown animal-assisted activities (in particular, dog-reading activities) lessened the stress and anxiety that students might feel and promoted positive mood and wellbeing. This group of researchers wanted to see if they could also improve reading performance. Some other studies had been done on this in primary-school aged children, but secondary students who struggle with reading have greater feelings of anxiety and reluctance to read aloud than primary students.
Sensibly, the researchers chose a group of students who were not allergic to, or afraid of dogs and who were struggling with the academic demands of school.
After recording the reading sessions and giving the students an “attitude to reading” questionnaire, the results came in. Students who read to a dog (with a teacher present wearing noise cancelling headphones and looking away, in order to handle the dog if necessary) had significantly higher scores for reading aloud- measured on their fluency of reading, consistency of reading pace and appeared more relaxed and confident in their postures, reflected by their comparatively positive descriptions of reading to the dog.
Over half mentioned that they felt calm when reading to the dog and reported that dog listened very well to their reading! Some students even reported that they felt there wasn’t enough time allowed for them to read to the dog, a great result for students who disliked reading aloud at all.
The thing that is particularly notable is that this experiment was conducted with only 5 minute trials over a period of three weeks. That sure doesn’t sound like very long to see big differences, but it is what they observed and means that possibly reading to dogs is a rapid way to assist students who struggle with reading.
So will we see dogs in school? Probably not. They do need to be trained therapy dogs, the students need to not be afraid of, or allergic to dogs and the dog does require a handler. But perhaps we will see this emerging in a few places, or in special education centres, or simply benefiting students as scientists conduct more research. We’ll really just have to wait and see.