I’ve been spending the week with my parents and their Rottweiler named Zoe (who is frequently referred to as my sister, LOL.) Zoe is part of their local therapy dog program. My parents take her to nursing homes, schools, and other places where she can visit people who benefit from her companionship. Once a month, they participate in their library’s Read to a Dog program. I went with them on their most recent visit and was so impressed with the experience, I thought I’d share it here.
I’m always interested in the practical/management aspects of stuff like this, so here’s how the event is organized. The library advertises and asks families to sign up a few days in advance. A local therapy dog group (people who have taken their dogs through special training courses) are notified of how many children are expected and are asked via email to volunteer. Ideally, there’s an even match between the number of kids and the number of dogs, but it’s not really necessary.
At the event, the dog owners arrive a few minutes early and set up chairs in a circle around the perimeter of the room so that there’s a different station for each dog. The kids then come in and choose a book from a selection the librarian has made available. (Most of the kids choose books about dogs, which is super cute and makes total sense—what other kind of story would a dog be interested in?)
The kids take their book along with a slip of paper to any dog they’d like. They give their slip to the dog owner, who writes the dog’s name as a record of who they’ve read to, and then they start reading. When they’re done, they can pick another dog to read to, or if there are no dogs available, they just stand in the center of the room for a few seconds until there’s an open spot.
The kids I saw all loved reading to the dogs: it was a relaxed, casual atmosphere with no pressure on the kids to perform. No one was correcting them as they read or asking them comprehension questions—it was simply a time to enjoy books and animals. Most of the kids chose to read the same book to every dog in the group, which meant they had a lot of opportunities to develop fluency, practice reading with expression, and build their confidence as they read the same text repeatedly.
Reading to a pet is a great experience for all types of kids, but it could be especially beneficial for emerging readers, English Language learners, reluctant readers, and kids with special needs or learning disabilities. It’s so much less intimidating than reading aloud in front of peers or adults. Some of the kids who participated were actually very strong readers who enjoyed being around the animals: for them, this was simply a chance to have an audience for their reading and a chance to share books they love.
If you’re looking for a free literacy resource you can recommend to your students’ parents, I encourage you to search online for a Read to a Dog program in your area. You can also contact local therapy dog groups and ask them to come to your classroom so your students can read to the dogs. This could become a monthly routine or a special reward that the kids earn. There’s even some effectiveness research you can show your admin to get them on board.
Have you ever had your students participated in a Read to a Dog program or something similar? Please share your experiences/resources in the comments!