Long viewed as man’s best friend, it turns out that our canine companions can be a child’s best friend as well, at least where reading is concerned. Researchers have found that when children read to dogs, the benefits are clear, with improvements in reading ability by as much as 30%. The program has shown so much promise that it has spawned a number of similar ones around the country that get children to read to dogs.

The current findings are the result of a joint effort by veterinarians and animal rescuers who have already established “animal-assisted” reading therapy programs. The success of the approach is based in the fact that dogs, unlike some children and adults, are not critical of a child’s reading ability and as a consequence, offer a judgment-free listener. This neutrality seems to allow children to relax and build confidence in their reading abilities, as opposed to giving up due to the fear of being judged.

Researchers identified any changes in reading skills in third graders and home-schooled students who read regularly read aloud to rescued dogs at the shelter. In the third graders, reading skills went up by 12%, and in the homeschooled group, they went up by as much as 30%. Reading speeds were also enhanced by up to 30 words per minute. Furthermore, at the study’s completion, 75% of the parents found that their kids were more engaged in reading activities at home, displaying confidence and enthusiasm that may have been absent before the experience.

When interviewed, some of the children reported feeling more relaxed when reading to the dogs because they viewed it as having fun. The dogs did not care if the child was a “bad” reader, allowing the child to continue along with the story. Scientists believe that the success of the program lies in the fact that dogs (at least the ones used in the study) are patient enough to sit through most stories without much fuss or judgment. This makes the children more at ease and has a profound effect on how they think of reading.

The study is part of a larger approach of employing animals to improve the health of people of all ages. Known as animal assisted therapy (AAT), it has been found that animals can reduce loneliness and provide comfort to patients who suffer from a variety of conditions, including people in nursing homes, those suffering orthopedic injuries, and those who have chronic diseases, including dementia and HIV/AIDS.

So the next time your child asks for a cat or a dog, consider the world of possibilities, not to mention the fun and companionship that animals bring to any family.

For more information about animal assisted therapy, visit the website for the Delta Society.