How Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort and Motivation to Struggling Readers
As a reading specialist I have worked with children with a range of reading disabilities. Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition as well as poor spelling and decoding abilities due to a phonological deficit. If you are the parent of a child with dyslexia, you know that simply practicing reading is not enough to improve skills. These students benefit most from 1:1 instruction from an educator trained to help those with dyslexia.
Early intervention for struggling readers is important in ensuring that these students do not fall behind their peers. By the time students reach 4th grade, there is a transition from learning to read, to reading to learn and students are expected to be able to access grade level texts. If they have not received adequate intervention by 4th grade, it can be incredibly challenging for them to keep up with school work.
When faced with a reading disability such as dyslexia, students often feel anxious and frustrated by reading and it is essential that teachers recognize and help to alleviate these feelings. The National Reading Panel (2000) identified 5 key elements for effective reading instruction: Phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Practicing these skills is incredibly challenging for students with dyslexia. If you know someone with dyslexia you are likely well aware of the anxiety, frustration, and anger that often accompanies the challenges of learning to read with dyslexia. First and foremost, strong literacy instruction is key to supporting these learners. However, equally as important, is supporting the social emotional needs of these learners as well.
So where do the therapy dogs come into play? As a doctoral student interested in how to support the social emotional struggles students with dyslexia face, I drew on my previous experience as a reading specialist in a school that utilized therapy dogs as part of their reading and counseling services. Teachers, students, and parents involved with the therapy dogs would tell you that the dogs often changed a student’s entire attitude toward reading. I saw students who dreaded reading and receiving a 1:1 intervention suddenly look forward to reading when they could do so with the school’s therapy dog. While these anecdotal stories were compelling, I wanted to gather empirical data on the practice and find out if therapy dogs did in fact help support students feel more comfortable when in a vulnerable situation such as a 1:1 reading intervention.
I conducted a study including third grade students with dyslexia. These students took part in a ten-week reading fluency intervention with a teacher certified in special education. Some students had the opportunity to read with a therapy dog and others received the intervention without the therapy dog.
We were excited to discover that the findings supported the use of therapy dogs as a tool to augment strong literacy instruction and support the social emotional needs of students. Students in the therapy dog group showed greater percent increases in reading fluency from pre- to post- assessment than students in the non-dog group; greater percent decreases in their levels of anxiety from pre- to post- assessment; and an increase in total reading motivation and self-concept as readers. Themes of ‘reading enjoyment’, ‘improved reading confidence’, and ‘decreased anxiety’ emerged through interviews on how students with dyslexia feel about their self-efficacy as readers when in the presence of a therapy dog.
If you are the parent of any child who struggles with reading, I recommend taking advantage of the many therapy dog programs at public libraries across the country. Many children benefit from a non-judgemental, cuddly listener. If you are interested in learning more about therapy dog programs for reading visit www.petpartners.org.