Dogs…A Musician’s Best Friend?

Reading is often thought of as a calming and relaxing activity. Something you might do before going to sleep at night, or on vacation while sitting poolside with an ice cold strawberry lemonade.

But for many young children, reading can actually be quite stressful and cause a lot of anxiety.

Because it’s one thing if we are naturally curious about reading and take to it pretty easily, but a very different story if we struggle, feel judged by teachers, or get teased by classmates. Our confidence can quickly spiral downhill and lead to a destructive cycle, where we avoid reading, fail to improve, get more anxious, make more mistakes, lose even more confidence, and so on.

A range of programs exist to help young readers gain confidence and reading skills, one of which, believe it or not, involves reading to dogs.

Some studies have found that dogs can have a calming effect that reduces some indicators of stress. And given that they are (at least as far as we can tell) a non-judgmental audience, the idea is that perhaps reading to a dog could be a way to encourage more reading practice, and help to build skills and confidence in struggling readers.

When I first came across this, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the idea. But then I remembered my daughter’s first studio recital, where one of the other students flat-out refused to get on stage, crying and grabbing hold of his mom when it was his turn to play. Which made me wonder if this idea might really be a thing, and if it could be applied in music as well.

Research on struggling readers

As it turns out, there actually is some research on whether reading to dogs has any benefit to struggling readers. The literature is in its infancy, and there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered, but there is one recent South African study that looked interesting.

It involved 106 third graders who received low scores on a standardized reading test, and were struggling to read at grade level (75% were reading at a Grade 1 level, and 25% were at a Grade 2 level).

Once identified, they were randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group served as the control group, and continued with their regular classroom activities. The students in the other three groups, however, received opportunities to read aloud in different conditions.

One group of students read aloud to a trained adult volunteer (adult group), a second group read aloud to a teddy bear in the presence of a trained adult volunteer (teddy bear group), and a third group read aloud to a trained therapy dog and the owner, who was also trained to facilitate the reading process (dog group).

10 weeks with a reading buddy

For 10 weeks, the students met with their new reading buddy – adult, teddy bear, or dog – for a 20 minute read-aloud session. Mostly, the sessions involved reading books out loud and explaining the difficult words to their live, stuffed, or canine audience.

To see if there would be any changes in reading ability over time, the students’ reading skills were assessed before the program began, after the program concluded, and also, 8 weeks after the end of the program to see if the changes were lasting.

Was there any difference?

The researchers assessed reading speed, accuracy, as well as reading comprehension. And at the end of the 10-week program, students who had read to a therapy dog demonstrated higher reading comprehension scores than students in the other groups. And when assessed again 8 weeks later, the dog group continued to score higher in reading comprehension than the other students.

So the results are intriguing, but could this strategy be applied to building confidence among kids who are not so keen on the idea of performing in front of an audience?

The “Cinderella” exercise

I grew up a few miles outside of town, in a heavily wooded area, surrounded by birds, squirrels, frogs, and other critters. I also had some chickens and ducks that roamed the yard.

Like most kids, there were days when I didn’t feel like practicing. So often, my mom would “trick” me into doing a run-through or mock performance by setting up a stand on the porch, and suggesting that I give the animals a performance (either that, or she couldn’t take the sound of me practicing anymore and wanted me out of earshot…).

The challenge being, to see if I could get the animals to respond to my playing. Whether it was one of the ducks, the birds at the bird feeder, or the rogue chicken which broke from the other hens and lived in a grove of trees behind our house, the goal was to see if I could play beautifully enough to get them to approach me – like that scene in Cinderella where all the animals help her make a dress.

Aiming for beauty vs. perfection

It sounds a little silly, but in hindsight, I think this exercise helped me practice a particular performance mindset, which seems to be in line with what the advocates of reading to dogs describe as being part of the benefit of the exercise.

Whereas anxious readers have some of their cognitive resources tied up by worries about what others might think, and thus cannot engage as deeply in the reading itself, more confident readers seem to be able to immerse themselves more effectively in the book, and read more proficiently.

Likewise, when playing to attract an audience of birds, squirrels, and chickens, my focus was on playing beautifully, rather than worrying about playing “perfectly.” I think somewhere in my 8-year-old brain, there was a notion that the key to getting a squirrel to approach, or a bird to sing, or frog to croak lay not in flawless intonation, but in my ability to create a beautiful sound or project some sort of emotion in my playing. Which was a mindset that transferred over to performances where my audience was no longer composed of animals, but people.

So while the idea of doing mock performances for the family pet may sound a little nuts, and it’s a big leap to take the little research on this practice in reading and apply it to music performance, if you have students who aren’t comfortable with the idea of performing in front of an audience it might be a helpful exercise to try.

Because whether it’s Fido or the hamster, this may be a context in which students can practice performing for a totally non-judgmental audience, and cultivate a mindset that prioritizes playing beautifully, rather than striving to avoid mistakes and worrying about what others might think. Which pretty much sucks the fun out of any performance, whether it’s in your backyard or on stage in front of a packed house.

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14 Responses

  1. An interesting idea. As a flutist, however, I can vouch that CATS do NOT like for me to play in their presence. Our cats, named Melody and Harmony, used to get up and leave when I started hitting the high notes. Now they get up and leave as soon as they hear the first notes.

    1. Ha – our dog does not like my daughter playing the recorder, but seems ok with her piano. She does sound better on piano, but I’m pretty sure that’s not why he objects to the recorder…

      1. “It taught me how to summon Satan with ‘Hot Cross Buns’.”
        –Someone in reply to a post rhetorically asking how a recorder could enhance a child’s education

  2. I have just started learning to play the double bass. You can imagine the sounds emanating from the instrument and bow. My minpin religiously runs in when I begin practicing and lies on the nearest couch, remaining until I am finished and bow. Everyone else heads in the other direction. I am checking the minpin for deafness…

  3. We have two therapy dogs, now retired, Ada and Bentley, both Curly Coated Retrievers. We did R.E.A.D. (see for several years with teens who had emotional and behavioral problems at a local facility. We saw both significant improvement in reading and comprehension as well as significant improvement in behavior in our time with the teens. The staff said they could always tell when it was R.E.A.D. day because the kids were extra good so that they could read to the dogs.

    Ada enjoys listening to me practice while Bentley can take it or leave it. However, our first dog, Chaucer, a Saint Bernard, would start howling and rubbing his ears against the wall whenever I even pulled my trombone out of its case much less played it. Everone’s a critic!

  4. Interesting idea! I have found that when my chickens are around outside and can hear me practice, they like to come up and see what’s going on. My dogs are different – I have a little old deaf dog who loves to be close to me. He wants to be in my lap basically 24/7, so he likes to get close when I’m practicing. I have a big dog too, but she curls into the tiniest ball she can on the couch when I pull out my violin. She does not like the high pitched sounds of E string shifting practice and when I practice octaves and intervals, but she deals with it.

    One of my students has a small dachsund/chihuaua mix. When I go to her house for lessons, she has to kick the dog out of the house or in another room with the door shut. She howls when we play and barks. I don’t know if she’s singing along or if she hates it….but I think different animals probably respond different ways. Though once, I was tuning her G string, and the dog howled in harmony and ended up making an arpeggio by the time she reached the highest pitch she could. It was kind of cute.

    It makes more sense to me to think about playing for birds and squirrels, because the sounds they make are similar and it would interest them more.
    Just my two cents!

  5. When I was a child, my guitar teacher told me to always play for someone, even if it was a house plant. That way I would learn to project my sound. Over the years too, I have played for many different family pets and have remarked that they each have distinctive musical tastes. One rabbit in particular showed a marked preference for classical period repertoire….

  6. Intriguing. My last cat would frequently come in my practice studio to listen to me practice the accordion. When things were going well, he would stay the entire session. Not so good, he would get up and leave. He also came to my Skype lessons. One lesson was going particularly poorly, getting progressively worse. Finally, Mr. Pepper came over, jumped up on top of the music cabinet next to me, meowed something and just started at me like “You can do better.” My coach and I laughed so hard we had to take a break to regain composure. And things did go better on restart.

  7. Apparently the company of our pets make us brainier. For example mental arithmetic improves. I saw on tv a place of work in England where owners were encouraged to bring their dogs into the office. 🙂

  8. One question I think they should definitely try to answer in further research is how this works for people who are aware of it. By that, I mean, if I know why I’m playing for my dog, I know what effect I’m trying to have, but I’m conscious of why I’m doing what I’m doing, is that going to negatively affect the outcome? I wouldn’t be surprised if these kids weren’t told why they were reading to a dog or a stuffed animal.

  9. I tried training one of my dogs as a therapy dog for programs like this for a while, but he was just a little too squirrely and excitable for the job. That being said, he does sit and listen as I play my flute at home. If it’s been a while since I’ve played, both dogs will turn their heads as though they’re trying to understand me. Hopefully they’re as patient when my daughter starts playing something in a few years!

  10. Our cat loves listening to violin and cello practice, as well as sitting on parents’ laps during violin lessons in my studio. She always comes trotting in when certain families arrive and inveigles her way onto a lap where she blithely ignores the mother’s contortions whilst she attempts to take notes. She also appears at bedtime story time, curls up and listens intently. She is enjoying The Famous Five at present. The other day I entered our lounge room and discovered my daughters lying on the couch together whilst my 8 year old read to my 6 year old. The cat was happily tucked up on the arm of the couch behind their heads, also watching the book (looking for pictures of Timmy, the dog, I imagine).

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