Bailey Benson turned 10 today, but she's already reading like a high school student thanks to her terrier tutor, Guthrie.
It's been a year and a half since Benson and her parents visited an animal shelter in Phoenix and came home with Guthrie, a mixed-breed dog that looks like Dorothy's Toto. In that time, Benson's reading skills and confidence have soared.
"She reads to him constantly," said Benson's mom, Maria. "At any given time, you can go into her room and she's reading to him out loud."
Guthrie's nonjudgmental presence and silent appreciation for the written word might be driving Benson's success. Based on the results of a pilot study, researchers from Tufts University in Boston say reading out loud to dogs can boost kids' ability and desire to read.
"Dogs are such good listeners," said Lisa Freeman, a veterinarian at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. "They really make reading a fun and pleasant experience for a child in what might otherwise be a challenging environment."
Small studies and personal anecdotes have touted the benefits of reading to dogs for more than a decade. As a result, programs that match young readers with furry friends at local libraries, group homes and community centers are in high demand.
"We want to be able to expand these programs -- get more funding and get them into more communities," Freeman said. Larger scientific studies, she hopes, will yield the hard evidence needed to convince naysayers and boost resources.
The psychological benefits of pet ownership are profound. Dogs can comfort college students panicking over midterms and calm hospital patients waiting for intimidating tests. They can even ease debilitating anxiety for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We've always known that pets made us feel good, but we're increasingly realizing that pets are in fact good for us," said Marty Becker, an Idaho-based veterinarian and author of "The Healing Power of Pets." "Not everything has to be state of the art; we need things that are state of the heart."
Humans aren't the only ones who benefit from the relationship. Freeman said dogs in Tufts' Paws for People program are thrilled to do their jobs.
"We want to make sure both ends of the leash are benefiting from this," she said.
Guthrie seems content enough, having patiently listened to about 25 books. Benson tries to pick "things he likes," like poetry, "Harry Potter," and anything about dogs. She avoids "Lemony Snicket" -- the spooky series makes Guthrie anxious, she said.
Guthrie has also bolstered Benson's love for animals. About to enter the fifth grade, she's now torn between a career as a vet or as a gynecologist.
"Maybe I could be a veterinary gynecologist," she recently told her mom.
Benson celebrated her ninth birthday at her local Humane Society, to which she donated any money she was given so the dogs could find "forever homes." This year she asked for an e-reader.