The BaRK (Building Reading Confidence for Kids) Canine Assisted Reading Program: One Child's Experience

By Fisher, Barbara; Cozens, Merle | Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, February 2014 | Go to article overview

The BaRK (Building Reading Confidence for Kids) Canine Assisted Reading Program: One Child's Experience


Fisher, Barbara, Cozens, Merle, Literacy Learning: The Middle Years


Introduction

It is widely accepted that a child's confidence and success with books and reading, particularly at the initial stages, shows a direct relationship to his/her attitude towards reading. All children need to be engaged in the reading process from a very early age if they are going to succeed at school and in the workforce (Ecklund & Lamon, 2008). But how can a teacher identify if a child is engaging with literacy learning? According to Guthrie (2001), 'engaged readers seek to understand: they enjoy learning and they believe in their reading abilities. They are mastery orientated, intrinsically motivated, and have self-efficacy' (p. 1). However, not every child finds reading an engaging task. It follows, therefore, that any new idea or suggestion, which has the potential to actively involve a disengaged child in literacy learning or to re-ignite a love of reading, is worthy of investigation.

One relatively new program that has the potential to engage students involves trained therapy dogs and their volunteer owner/handlers. In a controlled environment, the dog and the volunteer handler sit and listen while the child reads aloud to them. According to the Story Dogs (2013a) website, 'the non-judgemental, loving nature of dogs gives this program its magic and helps children relax, open up, try harder and have fun reading to a friendly and calm dog'. Interactions involving therapy animals are 'designed to promote improvements in the physical, social, emotional and /or cognitive functioning of human participants' (Smith & Meehan, 2010, p. 1). Jalongo (2005), reporting on Friedmann, Thomas, and Eddy's research conducted in 2000, says that the presence of a therapy dog during reading 'reduced children's blood pressure and heart rate to normal levels and diminished other observable signs of anxiety' (p. 154). These comments seem to suggest that a canine assisted literacy program may have academic as well as therapeutic value. Its non-threatening and unusual approach to reading instruction may encourage the disaffected and disconnected reader to reconnect with literacy.

The development of canine assisted literacy programs

The first and possibly the best-known canine assisted literacy program, Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.), which commenced in 1999 in the state of Utah in the US, was designed by Sandi Martin, a nurse and board member of the Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) organisation (Dunlap, 2010; Intermountain Therapy Animals, n.d.). She had noticed the positive benefits that animals brought to patients so began the R.E.A.D program, believing that it had the potential to benefit disengaged readers. The original program involved an ITA trained dog and its handler for a 15 minute time slot, with a ratio of one-to-one dog-to-client in a library setting (Intermountain Therapy Animals, n.d.). Within a year the program had successfully moved into the school system (Stone, 2007). Figure 1 shows the type of interaction that occurs in canine assisted reading programs.

The success of this literacy concept soon spawned a variety of similar literacy programs with a range of adaptations. Some of the more widely publicised programs include: Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety (BARKS) (Stone, 2007), Sit Stay Read (Stone, 2007; Smith, 2009), Canine Assisted Reading Education (C.A.R.E.) (Stone, 2007), Reading with Rover (Paradise, 2007), Paws for Reading (Truett & Becnel, 2011) and All Ears Reading (Smith & Meehan, 2010). While maintaining the crucial element of a child reading one-on-one to a dog, these programs vary in a number of aspects including the age level of the children (Kindergarten through to upper primary-aged students), the length of one-on-one reading time with the dog (15-30 minutes), the venue (public libraries, schools, child-care centres, bookshops), those responsible for the selection of participants (self-selected, teachers, reading specialists, parents), selection of reading materials (child, teacher, dog handler), and the ability level of the participants (achieving, learning-disabled or disengaged readers, children with autism). …

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