Seven year old Zachary Callahan leans against a pillow reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Lollipop, a chocolate and cream Chihuahua mix is curled up against his legs, snoozing.
“I really like dogs and I really like reading and those are two of my favorite things combined with each other.”
Zachary’s been taking part in a study by two UC Davis researchers. Once a week for ten weeks he came to campus to sit and read out loud to lollipop for about 20 minutes.
“I just never thought there would be a connection. It sounded like a crazy idea.”
That’s Zachary’s dad, Jonathan. He says he’s seen big changes in his son since he took part in the program.
“Now he’s more comfortable reading out loud to his younger brother and maybe in the car and he stays up late to read his books now on the couch and I’ve seen him duck out of television to sit on the couch and read his books so that’s a pretty big win.”
So what’s made the difference? The answer may lie partly in the reason Zachary likes reading to Lollipop so much:
“I feel very very good. I feel relaxed and concentrated and that’s how I feel.”
That makes perfect sense to Martin Smith. He’s one of two veterinary medicine specialists doing the research.
“Other studies have shown that animals do calm people so I think that probably creates a similar type of atmosphere for children.”
The most recent project involved kids including Zachary who are home-schooled. But the researchers also studied third-grade classes at a Dixon Elementary School, near Sacramento. They took four classes. Three read out loud to dogs for 10 minutes, once a week. The fourth class had regular classroom instruction. At the end of ten weeks, the classes that read to dogs improved reading fluency by 12 to 46 percent. The fourth class showed no improvement. They gave all of the students the same standardized tests. Cheryl Meehan is a co-researcher on the project:
“It’s not the dog per se, but there is a difference between reading to a Mom or a teacher than there is in reading to an animal.”
Just ask 8-year old Zephaniah San Juan. He and his sister both took part in the most recent study:
“They don’t tell you to speak up or anything. They don’t tell you to do anything. They just basically sleep.”
Zephaniah’s Mom, Gina, says she really had to push him to take part in the program – but the results have been surprising:
“My son, he wasn’t a reader before. He would fight me on it. Since coming out here and talking to – laughs – reading to the dogs. He’s been a lot more confident about it and he actually likes to read now.”
So if you’re the parent of a kid who’s struggling with reading, should you rush out and get a puppy? Not necessarily. The dogs used in the study came from Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation. They’re trained therapy dogs who don’t bark, don’t bite and make a really good audience. In fact, the foundation has had a reading program for some time. But the researchers say a pet with the right temperament and training could be very positive. And Zachary Callahan’s already on board
“And when I grow up I’m getting a dog.”
He won’t have to wait that long. His Dad Jonathan says they’re already in the market for a Labradoodle. SOC