Researchers in the US found that reading to dogs helped children improve their fluency by up to 30 per cent. Many animal organizations and libraries in the US already have reading improvement schemes where they pair up children and dogs, but until now the evidence has been more anecdotal than research-based.

The findings are the result of a collaboration between the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation of Walnut Creek, California. Together they studied participants of the Foundation's already established animal assisted therapy scheme called the All Ears Reading Program, according to a statement released by UC Davis earlier this month.

Lead researcher Martin Smith, a veterinary school science educator with UC Davis, told the press that:

"The dogs, in contrast to a human, don't judge the individual, aren't grading the individual, and hopefully that allows the children to build some confidence in their reading skills."

Smith and colleagues explored changes in reading skills among third graders at school and among home-schooled students. They found reading fluency went up 12 per cent in the school-based students and 30 per cent in the home-schooled students. Reading speeds also increased by up to 30 words per minute.

The children regularly read out loud to three shelter-rescued dogs called Molly, Digory and Lollipop (a Chihuahua-terrier mix) from Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation.

The home-schooled children visited the veterinary school campus every week for 10 weeks during which time each child read out loud to one of the dogs for 15 to 20 minutes.

One child told the researchers that:

"I feel relaxed when I am reading to a dog because I am having fun."

Another added that:

"The dogs don't care if you read really, really bad so you just keep going."

After the study, 75 per cent of parents reported that their child was now reading aloud more frequently and with more confidence.

Smith and colleagues proposed that because the children perceived the dogs as patient and non-judgemental, this changed their attitude to reading.

Research into animal assisted therapy (AAT) shows that pets can also improve people's health.

In 2004, Dr Daniel Joffe, a Canadian veterinarian reviewed the medical literature and found pet therapy increased social interaction among long stay psychiatric patients, opened up social and recreational opportunities in nursing homes, gave valuable companionship to low-mobility orthopedic patients, helped dementia patients be less agitated and reduced loneliness in patients with HIV/AIDS.

There is also evidence to suggest that babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens, such as when they share a home with a dog or a cat, have a stronger immune system, according to Dr James E. Gern, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who co-authored a paper about it in the 2004 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Sources: UC Davis, All Ears Reading, MNT Archives.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD