Assistance dogs help children with their reading

  • Animals
  • Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022

Dogs are known to have a special educational effect on children, and Emmy the dog is being trained to help children who have inhibitions about reading aloud. Photo: dpa

Emmy, a golden retriever, is lying quietly beside seven-year-old Anna-Maria, who’s holding a book in her hands. The dog, wearing a red neckerchief inscribed with the German word Lesehund – “reading dog” – is a key player in a volunteer project aimed at helping kids who have trouble reading aloud to overcome their inhibitions.

Anna-Maria pets Emmy as she starts to read, and the words come out quite fluently.

“’Artist,’ ‘astronaut’ – you even read the really hard words well!” praises Kerstin Deters, Emmy’s owner.

Deters, 48, says she’s currently the only trainer of reading dog teams – comprising a dog and its handler – in the northern German states of Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg, the project’s area of activity.

Anna-Maria says her classmates used to laugh at her when she read aloud in front of the class. Practising with the reading dog has helped her a lot, though, and now she feels more confident. On this particular day she’s reading at Deters’s home. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the project is only now slowly resuming at the participating schools.

A fun reading buddy

Lea, aged 10, has also come to the home and is practising with the second reading dog, the eight-month-old Goldendoodle Nala, who is still in training. The minimum age for reading dogs is namely a year.

Lea has selected a book at her reading level from among the books that are part of the project. She’s now able to read clearly and fluently, and rarely falters. Suddenly Nala plops a paw onto the pages of the book. Lea grins.

“The kids should have fun reading, and the dog alone makes it fun,” remarks Deters, a trained medical assistant and mother of three.

Test results of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018, which focused on the reading skills of 15-year-olds in 79 countries and economies, found one in five of them in Germany to have a very low level. The OECD report is titled “21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World”.

“PISA 2018 results show that when students were confronted with literacy tasks that required them to understand implicit cues pertaining to the content or source of the information, an average of just 9% of 15-year-old students in OECD countries had enough of a reading proficiency level to be able to successfully distinguish facts from opinions,” the report’s authors wrote in a prefacing editorial.


“Unfortunately, reading tends to be less attractive to children and adolescents than it was 20 years ago,” said German sociologist and youth researcher Klaus Hurrelmann, noting they often found the moving images in videos to be much more appealing. “This is aggravated by the fact that fewer and fewer parents read aloud to them.”

Having children with reading problems read aloud to a dog is a nice idea, he says, because the dog doesn’t pass judgement and is attentive.

Modelled after a similar programme in the United States known as R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs), the first reading dog project in Germany was launched in 2008 in Munich. Deters read an article about it and had Emmy trained as a reading dog in 2017 in the southern German city. In 2019 she became a reading dog trainer herself, but the pandemic has slowed her efforts to expand the project in northern Germany.

“We’re still in the build-up phase,” she says. “Several teams are about to get started.”

Deters knows how kids feel when reading is difficult for them. “As a child, I didn’t like reading either,” she recalls, and says she didn’t start to enjoy it until she read to her young daughter. And one of her sons struggled with dyslexia.

“As a mother, I know how hard it is to get a child to read,” she says.

For the children in the northern German reading dog project, Deters starts with texts that are somewhat simpler than their expected proficiency level.

“The kids should quickly have a sense of achievement,” she says, adding that they benefit from “not having to be afraid of misreading.”

Deters herself keeps mainly in the background, and seldom makes corrections. “We don’t want to interrupt the flow of the child’s reading,” she explains.

Her volunteer work for the reading dog project is extremely enjoyable, she says, and “very rewarding”.

People who want to join the project as handlers of a reading dog are required to undergo a casting session, participate in a one-day workshop and pass the Dog Owners Qualification (D.O.Q.) Test 2.0, which consists of a theoretical as well as practical part.

The reading dog teams are supposed to seek out places in the surrounding area where they’d like to work, and not necessarily schools. Libraries and remedial education facilities are also possible locations. Year Two pupils and higher are eligible, Deters says. – dpa/Stephanie Lettgen

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