Having a reading dog in school has a number of positive effects for pupils. Andreas Reier Jensen and Ilmi Willbergh are researching why the interaction works so well.
When children read to dogs, they experience reduced stress and enhanced concentration. They become better readers, they become more persistent and motivated, and get the experience of achievement.
“Reading dogs have a positive effect in school. The children are also very content and feel they are getting better at reading. In the past, this has largely been explained by the secretion of the hormone oxytocin, but we think this explanation is a bit too simple,” says Andreas Reier Jensen.
He believes the phenomenon has more to do with the dog’s open-minded and welcoming nature making it what he calls ‘a pedagogical actor’ for the child, a reading teacher quite simply.
Jensen is an associate professor in the Department of Education at the University of Agder (UiA). Together with Professor Ilmi Willbergh, he has written the article ‘The dog as an unaware pedagogical agent in a school reading course’ in the journal Anthrozoös.
The researchers followed a group of schoolchildren over seven months and studied video footage of 224 reading sessions with a dog.
“Large mammals are similar enough to humans for us to get attached to them, yet still so different from us that we don't feel shy with them,” Jensen says.
When the pupils read to a dog, they have to pretend that the dog can understand them in order to get the most out of the situation. They see the dog as an individual with the ability to communicate, however they are fully aware that the dog does not understand the words they read to them.
“Play is important for children's learning. We call the dog an unaware pedagogical agent in this situation,” Willbergh says.
Through evolution, dogs have developed an ability to communicate with human beings that differs from that of other animals. When pupils can maintain eye contact with the reading dog and even give it a high-five at the end of the reading session, they experience connection with another living being and the whole thing contains a sense of humour. It contributes to the pupils experiencing the reading session as particularly meaningful.
The researchers saw that it was necessary for the children to enter a role-play where the dog plays the role of a listener.
“The children who showed no particular interest in the dog might just as well have read to another person,” Jensen says.
“Since the reading session takes place in school, the pupils know what is expected of them. And that expectation is strong enough for them agree to the premise of pretending that the dog understands the story,” says Willbergh.
“Anthrozoology is an interdisciplinary field that studies the communication and interactions between humans and other animals,” as Jensen puts it.
“In the Western tradition there has been a separation between man and nature, the consequences of which we are now seeing with the nature crisis we are in the middle of. It is therefore time to reconsider our relationship with nature. This is the first time a study has combined pedagogy and anthrozoology and where it is seen in the context of the school as an institution,” he says.