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Potential of dogs as reading aids unleashed

Weighing 113 kilograms and standing over two metres tall, Baron, an English Mastiff, could be Australia’s largest dog. But that’s not his only claim to canine fame: Baron is also a certified therapy dog.

At Penrith Valley School in Sydney’s west, he helps students with behavioural and emotional difficulties improve their literacy, by simply listening to them read.

Baron. Photo: Facebook

Although research on dogs like Baron as reading aids is still in its infancy, it shows promise.

Dr Gill Johnson, assistant education professor at The University of Nottingham, is a proponent of the practice.

She noted the long-established notion of dogs as calming presences to support her stance. Further, she acknowledged pooches’ nonjudgmental natures.

“Children who are struggling to read, for whatever reason, need to build confidence and rediscover a motivation for reading. A dog is a reassuring, uncritical audience who will not mind if mistakes are made,” she wrote.

And the animal reading companion need not be sentient. Johnson recalled when a child happily discussed reading to her teddy, when her parents weren’t available.

Furry literacy support sounds charming, but to what extent has this hypothesis been established? Though a 2016 literature review found no conclusive evidence in this respect, Delta Society Australia, an organisation that promotes the therapeutic benefits of animals, begs to differ.

It brings ‘Classroom Canines’ to kids, especially those with reading difficulties, to assist them. In doing so, Delta Society Australia relies on evidence that demonstrates a link between pet care and increased confidence coupled with decreased stress.

Despite a lack of evidence of reading-related benefits, they claim they’ve witnessed positive results.

Nonetheless, Johnson sees no reason why man’s best friend shouldn’t provide succour to struggling kids, too. “[It’s] not a substitute for targeted intervention,” she explained to me. “Reading to dogs is about building confidence and breaking negative cycles of attitudes to reading.”

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