Evidence has existed for quite some time implying the possible benefits of animal companionship, including lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety and more active lifestyles.
Many benefits, however, are only anecdotally or correlationally supported – a situation that scholars at UC Davis have taken an interest in rectifying.
UC Davis researchers recently conducted an empirical study along with Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) that showed quantitatively significant improvements in reading skills when children read aloud to animals. The experiment was one of the first of its kind.
ARF and UC Davis have collaborated for over six years, said ARF’s executive director, Elena Bickers. The organization rescues animals and certifies some of them as Canine Good Citizens so they can participate in the Animal Therapy Team, which directly interacts with the children involved in the reading study as well as other programs.
Dr. Martin Smith, associate specialist in cooperative extension for the veterinary medicine program, co-led the research study, which tested fluency, accuracy and self-animal perception in 11 home-schooled or un-schooled children between seven and 12 years old as a result of a 10-week program called All Ears Reading run by ARF.
In 2008, a similar study was conducted on third graders from a Dixon elementary school.
“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that reading to dogs works,” Smith said. “We were approached by ARF a few years ago because they have a program [called All Ears Reading] and wanted to collaborate and get some quantitative data showing the possible benefits these kids were getting.”
The data centered on young children and tested for increases in words per minute (WPM) and errors per minute (EPM). In the most recent ten-week study, children improved 30 percent over the course of the program. They also participated in focus groups to discern changes in confidence and self-animal perception.
“Self-animal perception is how the children viewed their relationship with the dogs,” said Dr. Cheryl Meehan, staff research associate with UCD Veterinary Medicine Extension. “The children didn’t feel graded or evaluated [by the animals], and they really appreciated the judgment-free aspect of the program.”
The results of the previous study with Dixon Elementary third-graders were also positive, indicating both higher levels of fluency and an improved sense of connection with animals. Parents reported that their children were more enthusiastic about reading and more confident in their abilities as well.
“The studies are especially exciting because they really open a lot of doors to further research,” Smith said. “We want to test for improvements in comprehension, and maybe other subjects like math or science.”
Therapy animals are currently used with children in a variety of ways beyond improving reading ability, according to Dr. Smith. For example, courts use animal therapy dogs to help keep children involved in potentially nerve-wracking experiences calm. Other children with high levels of test-taking anxiety can benefit from therapy animals.
“As more research is done on the subject, we can make more effective programs,” Smith said. “It’s another tool that we can add to the toolbox.”
BRIAN GERSON can be reached at email@example.com.