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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.