Happiness is a warm puppy - to read to

The year Lori Friesen (‘12 PhD) began teaching, she adopted a puppy: a Maltese-poodle named Tango. It was the first dog she’d had since the passing of her beloved childhood dog, and she was thrilled. So were her Grade 1 students, who begged to meet the puppy. Seeing the learning opportunities for students, Friesen agreed to bring the dog to class.

Once Tango had been introduced to the children, pairs of students were allowed 10 minutes with the dog in the reading corner. That’s when the canine magic began. “They started bringing books to read to her,” recalls Friesen.

Give a good dog a book

Tango visited the class throughout the year and the students read countless stories to her. They started a “Tango Recommends” book corner, and at recess Friesen would overhear kids arguing about which books the dog liked most. In the classroom, the kids told their teacher that Tango was a good listener who didn’t interrupt when they read—unlike grown-ups.

“They loved the non-judgmental acceptance she gave them when they were struggling with something that was hard to them,” says Friesen. To her delight, students became more confident and skilled readers by sharing stories with Tango.

When Friesen decided to pursue a PhD in Elementary Education at the University of Alberta seven years later, she saw an opportunity to revisit that magical year with Tango. She found there were numerous reading programs with dogs around the world and decided to explore the phenomenon herself.

For her doctoral dissertation, she created and tested a reading program in a Grade 2 classroom in Edmonton. She found the children were not only thrilled to spend time with the two dogs involved, but also better able to focus on reading.

Why dogs help kids read

In the course of her research, Friesen asked the kids why they liked reading with the dogs. Some told her they felt less lonely reading to a dog. Others explained that the visiting dogs made the class feel more like a family. It was clear from their answers that having dogs around made children feel more relaxed, possibly because they were previously picking up on anxiety from well-meaning adults concerned about their reading skills.

This has also been the experience of recent Faculty of Education graduate Emily Bright-Kennedy (‘16 BEd), who has a long history of bringing dogs and other pets into classrooms—first as an educational assistant in Sedgewick, Alta., and more recently as a teacher.

“[The presence of dogs] definitely decreases anxiety for kids, for teachers, for everyone involved,” says Bright-Kennedy, who also has a degree in veterinary technology from Purdue University. “The presence of a friendly, non-human, well-behaved animal decreases anxiety across the board. And generally, the animal likes being there.”

Steve King, the founder of Chestermere Therapy Dogs Society in southern Alberta, has noticed much the same thing. The children in his organization’s reading program, Listening Tails, are initially excited about meeting the dogs but are able to calm down and focus—which is critical for learning. “Once someone’s relaxed, they’re more likely to learn,” he says. “If they’re tense, they can’t learn.”

The act of reading aloud to a dog also boosts a child’s confidence, “because they have the freedom to read in such a way that no one is going to criticize them,” says King. Teachers and parents have told him that children bring this newfound confidence into other areas of learning, like class discussions.

A new program and a surprising discovery

In 2010, as Friesen neared the completion of her PhD, she moved to San Diego, Calif. Excited by the results of her research into animal-assisted literacy learning—which was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council doctoral fellowship—she’d hoped to bring her Alberta-tested program to schools in southern California. But she soon hit a roadblock: many schools avoided having dogs on the premises because of the risk of dog bites. Most would allow a dog to visit as a one-time event—which allowed her to pilot her program at one school—but not on an ongoing basis.

Lori Friesen and her 2 dogs
Dr. Lori Friesen ('12 PhD) enjoys the southern California sun with her dogs Sparky (front) and Tango (back). "Tango was the inspiration behind my program," she says. "She was much more outgoing than Sparky, so she spent a lot more time in classrooms!"

So Friesen created a 10-week program that appealed to children’s love of animals in much the same way as her original idea. At school, kids read aloud to stuffed dogs and learned about caring for animals. At home, children could read to the family dog or, if they didn’t have one, the stuffed dog they’d been given through the program. She was shocked at how effective it was.

“I don’t think that a stuffed dog will ever replace the genuine love and bond that a child can have with an animal,” Friesen says. “This program involves the plush dogs to position children as teachers as they master emerging reading skills while helping children learn lessons in empathy and compassion for animals.”

Now in its second year, Friesen’s program—“How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead, and Succeed”—is taught to more than 1,200 students in Grades 1 and 2 in southern California. She hopes her approach will help kids become skilled readers by Grade 3, when the curriculum shifts to what—and not how—students are reading and many kids start to fall behind.

“The research indicates that very few children who fall behind at fourth grade ever catch up,” says Friesen. Her goal is to make the program statewide within five years and then expand across the United States and internationally.

Friesen is excited by the prospect of helping thousands of students learn to read, while also teaching the next generation to be kind to animals. “If we can plant seeds of compassion for other living things, we can help children be protectors of animals—and they can also be protectors of themselves.”

Read more about Lori Friesen’s research into animal-assisted literacy in these scholarly articles available online: Animal-assisted literacy: A supportive environment for constrained and unconstrained learning (2012), Potential for the role of school-based animal-assisted literacy mentoring programs (2010).

Feature image: A young participant in Friesen's literacy program, “How Your Dog Can Help Your Child Read, Lead, and Succeed”, poses with her toy dog.