Dogs Have a New Trick: Helping Kids Read

Man's best friend might be kids' best audience when learning to read.

ByABC News
August 11, 2011, 9:30 AM

Aug. 12, 2011— -- 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.