Can A Dog Help A Child Learn To Read?

The Dog Tales Literacy Program

Can A Dog Help A Child Learn To Read?

My daughter struggles with reading. It is the thing she has been developmentally and chronologically ready to do for monthsif not yearsand yet, it doesn't come easily. I feel her frustration so deeply as a Mom and an avid reader, and yet I cannot make it happen.

My oldest girl could read encyclopedias by four. The type of kid that would sit for hours on my lap, attending to each sweet detail of Robert Munsch's latest. My Ainsley, is a different breed. Never still. Easily angered. Especially when she finds a task frustrating.

Ainsley has special needs, and we have always had to think outside the box for her. When it came to learning the alphabet, we took to the trampoline. When she jumped the letters enough times, it stuck. We spent hundreds on Little Readers. I read to her while she was moving and I read when she was in bed. I continued reading even when she was barely within hearing range. I do not give up easily. We did phonics. We sat by the hour, and grandma, an ex-teacher, even planned out a whole program. Still the letters and sounds and memory piece remain so difficult to decode. Months and years and many dollars later, and I am as frustrated as her. I want for her to be able to understand the words on the page, and not feel embarrassed when she cannot read simple things, like cereal boxes and signs. So, we do what we do when things don't work for Ainsley: Research. Brainstorm. Hunt like detectives.

It simultaneously comforts and saddens me that this is the path of many parents raising children with special needs. My detective work leads me out of province, often, because it is a reality that other provinces in Canada are  doing much better for children with Ainsley's diagnoses, FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) and SPD (sensory processing disorder).  

At a conference in Alberta, I am repeatedly struck by the many animal-assisted therapies being used in their province to aid children with various disabilities. In Alberta, a recent study indicated that grade two children with various disabilities, who did not enjoy reading and struggled to learn the skill, were enthusiastic about reading to literacy dogs. The children in one group grew more confident, and some gained up to two levels in ability with the dog's help. I want this for my child.

She may never seek out War and Peace. It may never be her favourite thing. But too much is lost when you walk through the world unable to make sense of signs. About six months ago, my daughter and I, together, finally located a literacy dog program at our local library. Once a month, on Monday nights, my struggling reader picks a book and happily travels after school to the centre branch library to sit and read to Jade. Jade is a golden retriever therapy dog, trained by handler Jenny, and working with St. John's Ambulance. Seated beside Jade, petting her, and reading Arthur's Underwear, my daughter blossoms. There are no people here complicating things with their confusing social cues and body language. Just a calm dog, a book, and a girl.

What kinds of creative things have you done to nurture a love of reading in your children?

Mom of two teen girls, Paula Schuck, likes to joke that she's the Keeper of the Sanity, and some days that's the hardest job going. Paula (aka @inkscrblr) is a social media consultant and she writes about travel, parenting and health at Thrifty Mommas Tips. She lives in London, Ontario and is always hunting for the next mountain to ski.