Archive for June, 2012

Your pet can boost your child’s reading skills this summer

Reading to dogs improves skills and builds confidence

Studies have shown that over the summer break children lose an average of 2.6 months of the knowledge they gained in the school year. It’s a problem known as “brain drain,” and luckily, your family pet can help prevent it. How? Simply have your child read to your dog (or cat) for about 30 minutes a day.

As any teacher will tell you, the key to being a good reader is practice, practice, practice. The more your child reads the better she will be at reading; the better she is at reading, the more she wants to read. But for many children, reading is such an onerous task that getting them to practice is nearly impossible. Kids often find reading to be very stressful, either because they struggle with learning issues such as dyslexia or because they get nervous and self-conscious, they worry about making mistakes or they worry about looking dumb in front of their friends.

That’s where Fido comes in.  Reading to a dog is an ideal way for kids to practice without pressure because a dog is completely nonjudgmental.   Plus, the dog’s presence immediately decreases the child’s blood pressure and heart rate, allowing them to relax and enjoy the experience.

In a University of California, Davis study, children who read to dogs in the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program were not only more confident and enthusiastic about reading,  their reading skills also improved 12 percent in just 10 weeks. In another study conducted by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, researchers found that children who read to dogs for 30 minutes once a week increased their words per minute and showed improved engagement with reading.  Children in the same study who read to humans actually experienced a decrease in words per minute.

Here’s how it works: in the R.E.A.D. program, which takes place in schools and libraries across the country, children are allowed to choose any book they want, then they snuggle up with the same dog each week and read for about 30 minutes. They pet the dog, the dog  helps them turn the pages with their nose or paw, in general they bond.

Any corrections or comments are made through the dog’s handler and attributed to the dog so that the child doesn’t feel criticized.   For example, the handler might say, ” I don’t think Fido understands what has happened so far in the story, could you explain it to him?”  Or the handler could ask, “Can you explain what that word means to Fido?”

While these programs were created for children who faced challenges with reading, they are just as effective for kids who have no difficulties but need to log more practice time.  Reading to dogs is equally beneficial for children of all ages.  Speaking from personal experience, my 13-year-old daughter read the entire Hunger Games series to her cat and they both thoroughly enjoyed it.  Of course, now her cat is crushing on Peeta Mellark.

Therapy dogs are trained for the R.E.A.D. programs, but  you can set up a do-it-yourself program at home with your own dog as long as he is calm enough to sit beside your child and relax for a while.  If your dog is a little high strung, a nice walk before reading will help him be calmer.  If you don’t have a dog, cats also make excellent listeners. If you have no pets at all, use the links below to find a R.E.A.D. or similar program near you and banish the summer brain drain for good.

For the rest of the story and lots of helpful links about READ programs, suggested reading and more, visit my Examiner page

10 tips for running with your dog

In honor of National Running Day this week, let’s consider the joys of running with a canine companion.  Why run with your dog?  Dogs love it, they provide inspiration and motivation for you, running together offers a chance to bond with each other and it can be healthy for your dog.  With a few simple precautions, running with your dog can become a favorite pastime for both of you.

  • 10.  See the dog doc.  Just like you, your dog shouldn’t embark on any new exercise regime without a checkup first.  Make sure his heart, lungs, joints are in tip-top shape and have your vet recommend a good routine for your dog to begin with, i.e., an appropriate time and distance for the beginning runner.  Also, get updated on any necessary shots.
  • 9. Be consistent.  Run every day.  Start short, then build up his (and your) stamina over weeks or months. Frequent, short runs are better for most dogs (and you!) than weekend warrior marathons followed by a week off.
  • 8. Understand your dog.  What kind of runner is he?  Most dogs are sprinters, designed for short bursts rather than long distances.  Some shorter-nosed breeds like pugs or bulldogs have respiratory issues which make it hard for them to run.  Older dogs with arthritis or joint problems will need frequent breaks and may need to run slower or less far than they did when they were youngsters.   Pay attention to your dog while you run and read his body language because he can’t speak up to tell you when it hurts.  If he shows any signs of limping or discomfort, stop immediately.
  • 7. Leash up!  For his safety, always keep your dog on leash while running.  He’s already in motion so it doesn’t take much to prompt him into the street to chase an enticing squirrel.  Leash laws in Boulder require all dogs to be on leashes unless confined to their guardian’s property (in Boulder we never refer to the human as an “owner,” always a “guardian”).
  • Boulder has 144 miles of Open Space & Mountain Parks trails,  90 percent of which are open to dogs and many of those are “voice and sight control” areas where an Open Space and Mountain Parks voice and sight tag allows you to run off leash on trails/parks that participate in the program. Even if you’re running in a V&SC area,  it’s a good idea to stick with the leash — you’ll be able to prevent your dog from tangling with a rabid skunk.   For a list of Boulder’s voice and sight trails, see this FIDOS page.  FIDOS (Friends Interested in Dogs + Open Space) is an organization that promotes responsible dog guardianship while protecting natural resources of our public lands.

  • 6. Get legal.  Boulder law requires that your dog have a city license and must wear his license tag at all times if he’s over four months old and lives in city limits. For more info on City of Boulder animal laws click here.
  • 5. Safety first.  If you’re running on Open Space trails, take all the normal precautions such as having your dog wear bear bells and/or carrying a can of pepper spray.  Take your cell phone with you even though coverage on the more remote mountain trails may be spotty.

Click here to see the full story – and 4 more tips – at my Examiner column…

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