WHY READ TO DOGS?
In 2009, Corinne Serra Smith, a doctoral student at National-Louis University, wrote her dissertation on the effectiveness of Sit Stay Read, a reading-to-dogs program used in select underprivileged Chicago Public School classrooms. Her goal was to measure if oral reading fluency increased in 152 second-grade students compared to 98 students who did not participate in the program.
Corrine’s research showed oral reading fluency increased by 20% in the control group, which confirmed the program's effectiveness. Qualitative results were also measured, proving the program's success with teachers and students. Teachers felt that Sit Stay Read was enjoyable for the students and that the children were calmer with the dogs present. Teachers felt the dogs were excellent listeners for the readers and helped them feel good about themselves. Students loved the program because it was fun and helped them enjoy reading. The programme's success comes down to the right dog and environment. A child’s relaxation can increase while reading as dogs listen attentively and do not laugh, judge or criticise. They allow children to proceed at their own pace and can be less intimidating than a child’s peers.
Wellington City Libraries initially ran a reading-todogs trial at Kilbirnie Library before establishing the programme in 2023. Slots were booked out quickly. Tamariki can bring in their favourite book or pick one with help from a librarian before they curl up with a dog to practice their reading, says Children’s and Youth Services Coordinator Stephen Clothier. “The aim is to help tamariki improve their literacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem in a relaxed and non-judgemental environment – after all, a dog won’t laugh at you or judge you if you don’t know how to pronounce a certain word, or if you trip up over your sentences.” “The feedback from tamariki and their parents has been really positive – I’ve personally received several messages of thanks from parents, and there was a real buzz in the library both days that the programme was on, with curious onlookers and excited children all thoroughly enjoying the experience.”
Stephen says that the physical environment is an important factor. By running the programme in a community venue like a library rather than in a school, some of the innate anxiety learners associate with the activity is nullified. Since the trial at Kilbirnie, Wellington City Libraries have run the Read to Kurī programme weekly at Kilbirnie and Johnsonville Libraries, with additional one-off sessions at other community libraries. “One of the best things has been seeing teens getting into the programme. When we first planned the programme, we anticipated it would mainly be younger tamariki and their caregivers, so it’s been wonderful that older tamariki and rangatahi feel comfortable and participate.”
Christchurch City Libraries Reading to Dogs programme has helped hundreds of children since it was set up eight years ago, giving them confidence to read to a dog in a calm, non-judgemental environment. An initial pilot programme at Papanui Library quickly expanded to three locations each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during school terms, with sessions booked out weeks in advance. This has now been reduced to two libraries. Keegan and Riley Salt took part in Ōtautahi’s Shirley Library Reading to Dogs programme and said about the dogs, “They are good listeners, and they help with reading. I’ve moved up a level in my reading now”.
Napier Libraries have provided a reading to dog’s programme for a term and say it was well received and they will be running it again in term one this year. They found that some of their reading programme participants weren’t so confident doing check-ins with the librarians, so they wanted to introduce a programme where participants gained self-confidence and practised their reading in a carefree, calm environment. Their biggest challenge was finding an organisation to work with that provided therapy dogs to rest homes and other similar facilities. “It’s been so amazingly well received by our tamariki and their families. One participant is actually selectively mute, and his parent was amazed to see him quietly reading to the dog. His psychiatrist even praised the programme for helping his confidence,” says Napier Libraries’ Keelie Nye.
Hamilton City Libraries Reading Buddies programme began in 2017. Su Bradburn comments, “We had staff who were keen to set up a programme, including our director at the time, so having this encouragement from the top was very helpful as it wasn’t a cheap process.” It took over a year to set the parameters for the programme and to find dogs that might be suitable, the willing owners, and to have them assessed. Potential dogs were sourced through contacts in the local Dog Obedience Club and through suggestions from them. “We chose to run our Reading Buddies programme because we felt it was a way to engage children with interesting, novel and fun reading – after all, a dog is a non-judgemental listener. We’ve not yet come across a child who hasn’t (eventually!) loved it.”
For the programme's effectiveness, a blanket and a water bowl for each dog and a quiet space for reading are created. Chairs are provided for both the dog handler and the reader. Children are encouraged to bring a familiar book to read to the dog, but we have a supply of books just in case. Initially, it was a seven-week programme – week one was a dog safety session, then six weeks of reading to a dog. A pilot at a local after-school programme and feedback from that was very positive. From there, the programme ran several times in two schools and three libraries. “We found that the uptake was lower when running the seven-week programme at a library branch, and there was a higher incidence of no-shows. COVID put a halt to the programme for a couple of years.”
In 2023, Hamilton City Libraries ran a weekly session at another local primary school, and it will run there again in 2024. The school speaks very highly of the service as it benefits their struggling readers. One-off sessions are also held at different library branches during school holidays, which are always very popular. A couple of outcomes from the programme – during one of the library rotations a child who was terrified of dogs and couldn’t even look at the dog at her first session, was comfortable reading on the floor right next to the dog by the end of the last session. Last year, an autistic child who barely spoke above a whisper at the beginning of the year, was reading aloud to Toby (the dog he loves) by the end of the year.
Below, Hamilton City Libraries reading to dogs programme
Whakatāne Libraries have run reading-todogs sessions as part of their school holiday programmes as special Storytimes over the last ten years. The sessions provide pre-schoolers and primary school children with supervised exposure to pets/dogs and guidance on interacting with them and connecting to companion reading. Several dogs and owners have been involved, with the longest and most regular relationship ending in 2021. “After that, we were a bit nervous about revisiting doggie Storytimes too soon and only reignited them in 2022 with the labrador of a staff member,” says Whakatane Libraries’ Louise Anderson. “
In 2023, we had two sessions with the local Harmony and Hope Animal Rescue, and then a team member left to work for the local vet, so we have a second contact for doggie Storytimes. Establishing and maintaining the relationships is the most important part of this activity.”
Kāpiti Libraries ran a "Reading to Dogs" programme in 2023 and will continue this year. Like other libraries, the programme was set up to promote literacy and help children improve their reading aloud in a non-threatening environment. It also helps them feel welcome and comfortable in a public library. There has been good feedback on the programme. Children are more positive both towards the library and reading. Two locals trained the service dogs and volunteered their time. They will work with Canine Pet Therapy this year. A low-key and relaxing area for the dog and children is provided, and children can play with Lego while waiting for their turn.
Some libraries have tried dogs in libraries but struggled to find the right dog or sustain the service. Other issues occur in having a process in place to ensure health and safety.
One library introduced a vetted dog into the library and to a pre-school storytime session. This was successful, and the dog was then introduced to other sessions, including an adult group, children from the local High School Special Needs Unit and a class of 12-13-year-olds who regularly visited. The dog was not introduced as an aid for a specific literacy programme. It was a privately owned dog and the dog’s owner began to vary the arrangements for the visits. The programme was discontinued after the dog showed signs of being stressed. Library staff commented, “On reflection taking on an animal is a big responsibility. While we thought we were prepared (and we were so keen for it to happen), perhaps we were a bit naïve. And if there is a next time, we need to develop clear conversations around our expectations.”
Su Bradburn of Hamilton City Libraries says ensuring the safety of the children involved, staff, and the dogs themselves was paramount for their programme. The dogs underwent a rigorous assessment by an animal behaviourist – some were not considered suitable and didn’t make it into the programme. Wellington City Libraries work with Canine Friends Pet Therapy, which has systems for assessing the suitability of dogs for this programme. A rigorous three-stage assessment process covers dog suitability, handler suitability, and dog-handler interaction. The dogs and handlers must be approved by the Canine Friends Liaison Officer and a representative from the library after a face-to-face meeting. Canine friends Pet Therapy policy states that:
- Health and safety requirements of the school, library or facility hosting a programme must be signed off by a Liaison Officer either for an ongoing or one-off event.
- Any reading area must be separate from a classroom (school) and the public area of a library.
- No individual reading time should exceed 20 minutes.
Canine Friends Pet Therapy services are available in many parts of the country, and they are happy to work with libraries. You can email Canine Friends Pet Therapy at email@example.com.
Keelie Nye from Napier Libraries said it took them 18 months to get their programme up and running. They wanted to find an organisation that could provide trained and reliable dogs. “After much searching, we came across Canine Friends Pet Therapy, which offers similar programmes at rest care homes and daycare centres. This gave us a trusted and reputable pool of dogs to work with who were used to working in this environment.”
Other libraries over the country provide Reading to Dogs programmes, including Palmerston North Libraries and Waikato Libraries. The growth in these programmes in schools and libraries is a testament to the programme’s effectiveness in aiding children’s literacy. Besides Canine Friends Pet Therapy, partners to consider working with when setting up these programmes are St John’s Pet Therapy or the local animal shelter.
Christchurch City Libraries. Christchurch kids love reading to dogs (retrieved December 20, 2023)
Inklebarger, T. (2014). Dog Therapy 101-Expert advice to keep your program out of the doghouse
Napier Libraries. Reading going to the dogs (retrieved December 2023)
Smith, Corinne Serra, (2009). "An Analysis and Evaluation of Sit Stay Read: Is the Program Effective in Improving Student Engagement and Reading Outcomes?" Dissertations. 32.
Wellington City Libraries. Young ones reading to dogs does the trick (retrieved December 2023)
Amanda N. Coffman, Elana R. Bernstein, Susan C. Davies, Ann F. Justice (February 20, 2023). The Impact of a Canine-Assisted Reading Program on Readers Needing Extra Practice.
Therapy Dogs NZ