Toronto Humane Society children's reading program goes to the dogs

The program helps children learn to read and shelter dogs cope with a stressful experience. Evidence from other shelters show dogs are adopted sooner and children in the program have a more positive view of reading.

Book Buddies Reading Program pairs shelter dogs with children learning to read

The Toronto Humane Society's Book Buddies Reading Program pairs children who are learning to read with shelter dogs. (Toronto Humane Society/supplied)

It's a program that gets tails wagging, because there are tales being told.

The Toronto Humane Society's Book Buddies Reading Program pairs children who are learning to read with shelter dogs, helping both kids and animals deal with their respective challenges.

"I love helping animals anything to do with animal I love it. It makes them feel loved. They may be here for a long time so it helps them feel loved and important," says Sophia Hutchinson, who came out to the shelter Saturday to read.

For the dogs, being in a shelter can be a stressful experience and they may be anxious and not on their best behaviour when people come looking to adopt a pet, says Tegan Buckingham of the Toronto Humane Society.

Sophia Hutchinson says reading aloud to adults can sometimes be intimidating, so getting practice without interruption or criticism can be a good thing. (James Morrison/CBC)

"For the animals, it helps them to be more comfortable and sociable with people and if they are more social they end up being adopted faster," Buckingham told CBC Toronto..

According to the Humane Society of Missouri, which has a similar program called the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, dogs in the program were adopted out an average of eight days faster. Staff there say that's because the dogs are less likely to cower in the back of the kennels.

And Buckingham says the children in the program learn empathy towards animals while practising their reading skills in an encouraging environment.

Amelia Hutchinson loves animals and says reading to them makes them feel special and loved. (James Morrison/CBC)

"There's a benefit to the child in that they have somebody who is listening to them read without any judgment or criticism or anything like that. It's just a happy furry friend that's right beside them while they are learning how to read," she said. 

Since the program started early 2017 as part of the shelter's humane education program, about 1,000 kids have gone through it.

"It kind of worked out to be perfect to come up with a program that helped both shy animals and young children," Buckingham said. 

Tegan Buckingham of the Toronto Humane Society says reading to dogs gives children an audience that is listening to them without any judgement or criticism. (LinkedIn)

"I know from experience that reading to humans is sometimes scary, so when you are reading to animals they'll just listen and they won't judge," says Sophia Hutchinson.

Anecdotally, Buckingham says she's seen kids come out their shells when reading to dogs, but there's also evidence that providing a non-judgmental atmosphere where kids can read without correction or interruption has positive effects.

The Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts recently conducted a study and published its findings in the Early Childhood Education Journal.
Researchers wanted find out if reading aloud to dogs improved the skills and attitudes of children.

Lisa Freeman, professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, says a recent study suggested that children who read to dogs had improved attitudes about reading compared to a control group. (Tufts University)

For six weeks, Grade 2 students read aloud to dogs in an after-school program 30 minutes once a week. A control group did the same, but without the dogs.

The children's reading skills were assessed before and after the study, as were their attitudes about reading. Researchers found improved attitudes about reading among those who read to dogs compared to the control group.

"One of the most important aspects of facilitating reading skill development is motivating a child to engage in reading," said Lisa Freeman, professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.  

Scores assessing academic attitudes increased significantly among the children who read aloud to dogs, the study found. 

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.