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.