Kindergarteners Learn to Read with Help from Therapy Dog

Kindergartener Lucas Arkin reads to Harley. | Photo by Selah Maya Zighelboim

Once a week, the Kaiserman JCC Kindergarten class has a special visitor — Harley the dog.

When Amy Foster, director of the Robert J. Wilf Preschool and Kindergarten, leads him inside the classroom, students come up to pet him and give him a hug.

Harley, a certified therapy dog, is there so children can take turns reading to him. Research from the University of California, Davis Veterinary Medicine Extension has found that reading to dogs can build confidence in young readers, encouraging them to get more comfortable with reading aloud.

Harley, a 3-year-old yellow lab, began visiting the classroom in October when he received his certification.

“The kids are more excited about reading,” teacher Lesley Gotlib said. “They always ask if Harley is coming and if it’s their turn to read with Harley. That builds wanting to read.”

Gotlib said that reading to Harley removes anxiety for the students. It can be especially helpful to pre-readers who struggle the most with reading. These students often just describe the illustrations to Harley, which Gotlib said is how they first start learning.

“I did have one little girl ask me, when I told her that she was going to read to Harley, and she was worried, what if she didn’t know the words?” Gotlib said. “I said, ‘Harley doesn’t read, so it’s OK if you make a mistake as long as it goes with the pictures.’”

Amy Foster, director of the Robert J. Wilf Preschool and Kindergarten, reads to Harley and a group of kindergarteners. | Photo by Selah Maya Zighelboim

During reading, the class breaks into three groups based on reading level. Each week, one of the groups has a chance to read with Harley. First, Foster, as one of the reading instructors of the class, will read to a group with Harley sitting next to her. Students then answer some questions in a journal relating to the reading. Then they take turns picking out a book and reading to Harley. Because of time constraints, only a few students have the opportunity to read to Harley each week, but the instructors keep track of who has had a turn so everyone gets a chance.

Foster got the idea for this program through social media. She saw kids reading to dogs on Facebook.

She got her own dog Harley trained as a Canine Good Citizen so that he could help. She said that when she puts the therapy dog vest on Harley, he gets to work.

“He’s always really relaxed and calm and cool and all of that,” Foster said. “He knows he has a job to do in there. He will sit there, and I know he wants to get up sometimes like if they bring in lunch because lunch is after this, but he just sits there and listens to these books.”

Erica Arkin, parent of 6-year-old Lucas who is in the class, said her son is a perfectionist, so getting the opportunity to read to Harley makes him feel more comfortable to mispronounce words.

“From a confidence standpoint, it’s a great thing to have,” she said.

When it’s Lucas’ turn to read to Harley, he picks up a copy of Green Eggs and Ham.

“I like reading to Harley because he is very cute to be next to, and he gives me a lot of attention,” Lucas said.

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