July 08, 2017

Dogs, Kids, and Reading Performance: Is There a Connection?

In a recent study conducted in Austria, dogs only minorly influenced children’s reading performance—a surprising difference from previous studies on dog-assisted reading performance in children.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Dogs have only minor immediate effects on reading performance in elementary schoolchildren, according to a study recently published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. Such results contrast with previous studies reporting clear benefits of dogs on children’s reading performance.
 
Reading is an important skill for academic success. For children whose reading skills are below average, reading performance can be improved through reading programs. Previous studies have reported numerous ways in which dogs positively affect learning in children, including reducing stress, improving concentration, and enhancing social interaction. Given these positive effects, reading programs have increasingly incorporated dogs into their curricula.
 
To date, reading-with-dog programs are not widespread in German-speaking countries such as Austria. For the current study, researchers evaluated whether dogs would have an immediate effect on reading performance in 36 Austrian children with below-average reading skills.
 
Study Design
Each child underwent 2 testing sessions (TS1, TS2) spaced 1 week apart; a dog was present in 1 session and absent in the other. During each test session, children performed 2 reading tests: a standardized test assessing sentence and text comprehension, and a nonstandardized repeating reading (RR) test evaluating reading speed and short-term improvement. For the RR test, children twice read an age-appropriate section of text out loud.
 
Researchers measured several physiologic variables. Saliva samples were collected throughout the test sessions for cortisol measurement. Children also wore a heart rate (HR) belt and watch for HR measurement.
 
Behavioral variables—talking, nervous movements, self-manipulation—were also evaluated. Self-manipulation behaviors included scratching and nail chewing.
 
Results
Reading Performance
Overall, reading performance was better in TS2 than TS1 for the standardized reading test, and better in TS1 than TS2 for the RR test.
 
In each testing session for both reading tests, reading performance did not significantly improve with a dog’s presence compared with its absence. Interestingly, for the RR test in TS1, having a dog present improved reading performance from the first to second reading; researchers concluded that “repeated sessions with the dog are crucial to achieve substantial effects on reading performance.”
 
Physiology
In TS1, cortisol levels were not affected by a dog’s presence. However, in TS2, cortisol levels were higher with a dog’s presence than its absence; this contrasts with previous studies in which a dog’s presence had a calming effect.
 
Between test sessions, HR was higher with a dog’s presence. For example, a child’s HR was higher in TS1 with a dog than in TS2 without a dog. Interestingly, within test sessions, mean HRs for children with and without a dog were not significantly different.
 
Behavior
In TS1, children with a dog made fewer nervous movements and talked less, yet had similar amounts of self-manipulation, compared with children without a dog. In TS2, children with a dog engaged in more self-manipulation but had similar levels of nervous movements and talking as children without a dog.
 
Discussion
Researchers concluded that a dog’s presence had little influence on a child’s reading performance and various physiologic and behavioral parameters. The observed improvements in reading performance and increases in other parameters with a dog’s presence may have been due to activation of the appetitive system, which promotes reward-seeking behaviors.
 
Unlike previous studies on dog-assisted reading, in which a child’s reading skills were either normal or not assessed, this study evaluated children with below-average reading skills. Given this different study population, “[study] results produced new information which is important for understanding the underlying mechanisms and conditions of an effective pedagogical intervention to improve reading skills with the support of dogs.”
 
 
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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