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Reading to dogs in schools: Misguided fad … or effective research-backed intervention?

Jill Steel, PhD Student at University of Edinburgh

Reading to dogs (RTD) interventions in schools are increasing in popularity and prevalence. At the same time, educational policy and discourse addressing falling levels of children’s wellbeing and reading development are growing. With RTD suggested as supportive of both wellbeing and reading affect (reading anxiety, confidence and attitudes) (Steel, 2022a; Steel et al., 2021), could RTD fulfil an important role in schools?To find out, a thorough examination of RTD research is needed. But herein lies a problem: weak methodologies in studies to date and an overreliance on anecdotal evidence cast doubts over reported benefits (Brelsford et al., 2017; Hall et al., 2016). Furthermore, RTD research is featured less frequently in educational journals than scientific ones, potentially missing the teacher/school leader readership it would be most advantageous to. Additional issues include an over-inflation of benefits in the media, and the concern that educators with a particular personal affinity for dogs may not be entirely objective about RTD inclusion in schools. Collectively, these factors may result in schools adopting RTD without a full understanding of the benefits and, critically, challenges.

So, what are the reported benefits of RTD? Wellbeing is said to be supported by enhanced feelings of calm and enjoyment leading to increased positive social interactions, an improved class atmosphere and better behaviour (Brelsford et al., 2017; Hall et al., 2016; Steel, 2022b). Improved reading affect is thought to arise from unconditional positive regard and non-judgemental listening bestowed on the child by the dog (Steel, 2022b; Steel et al., 2021). These advantages were largely supported in my survey of teacher perspectives of RTD (Steel et al., 2021).

‘Improved reading affect is thought to arise from unconditional positive regard and non-judgemental listening bestowed on the child by the dog.’

But let’s be clear, RTD presents some challenges. Top of the list is surely risk; without proper regulation, inclusion of a live animal in a school presents a risk to the welfare of not only pupils but also school staff and the dog itself. Other challenges include increased paperwork and time in the school week, and concerns about phobias, hygiene and allergies not only for pupils but for staff too (Steel et al., 2021). Withdrawing a dog (upon intervention completion) that children have become attached to, particularly vulnerable children for whom benefits of RTD are suggested to be greatest (Steel, 2022b), raises ethical concerns.

So, what are the options for RTD and associated research going forward? Last year, I conducted a controlled feasibility study of an online RTD intervention named ‘Paws and Learn’ (PAL) (Steel (2022b; University of Edinburgh, 2022). During PAL, the dog (Archie), accompanied by his handler (myself), visited classes online, and children read to him one by one, via the screen. Designed in collaboration with three practising teachers to ensure it combined teacher practical know-how with researcher expertise (Steel et al., 2022), PAL incorporated pedagogical activities (largely absent from interventions to date) and eliminated risk to all stakeholders. Findings were mixed, but qualitative data suggested similar benefits to physically present RTD. The relationship with the dog was less entrenched, with the dog acting largely as a catalyst for supporting activities, helping to both extend benefits and mitigate negative effects of PAL ending. Interestingly, participating teachers perceived online RTD to be preferable from a feasibility perspective. A future study comparing physically present and online RTD would help to identify which version benefits readers most, while also balancing risk.

So, if RTD is to be elevated from a short-lived novelty to a credible, research-backed pedagogical intervention, considerably more quality research is needed. For now, it’s too early to tell whether ‘man’s best friend’ can play a role in addressing falling levels of wellbeing and reading development.


References

Brelsford, V. L., Meints, K., Gee, N. R., & Pfeffer, K. (2017). Animal-assisted interventions in the classroom: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(7), 669. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14070669 

Hall, S. S., Gee, N. R., & Mills, D. S. (2016). Children reading to dogs: A systematic review of the literature. PloS One, 11(2), e0149759. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149759 

Steel, J. (2022a, September 3, Preprint). Reading to dogs in schools: A controlled feasibility study of an online reading to dogs intervention. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/9gukb

Steel, J. (2022b). Children’s wellbeing and reading engagement: The impact of reading to dogs in a Scottish primary 1 classroom. Education 3-13, 1-16.

Steel, J., Williams, J. M., & McGeown, S. (2021) Reading to dogs in schools: An exploratory study of teacher perspectives, Educational Research, 63(3), 279–301. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2021.1956989 

Steel, J., Williams, J. M., & McGeown, S. (2022). Teacher-researcher collaboration in animal-assisted education: Co-designing a reading to dogs intervention. Educational Research, 64(1), 113–131. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2021.2016061 

University of Edinburgh. (2022). Paws and learn [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcqHkOpqbJk