Minor Immediate Effects of a Dog on Children’s Reading Performance
There is an increasing number of children that lack appropriate reading skills, and growing evidence showing that dogs seem to have positive effects on reading performance. The short term effects of dogs on reading performance was undertaken in 36 third graders, whilst physiological parameters such as heart rate and heart rate variability as well as behavioural variables were measured. Each child took part in two test sessions in the presence of a tutor, of which one had a dog and its handler present. Two reading tests were used whereby the children had to carry out time-limited reading tasks to assess sentence and text comprehension, and repeated reading where children had to read the same text twice to assess reading speed and short term improvement.
Previous studies indicate that dogs may facilitate learning based on physiological, psychological, emotional and social effects. By interacting with a calm friendly dog, stress may be reduced and heart rate, blood pressure and heart rate variability as well as the levels of cortisol affected favourably. They may also improve mood and even reduce depression. Dogs may facilitate interpersonal interactions by promoting verbal and non-verbal communication, and these effects are important in the context of learning and teaching. Elementary school children appeared to be quicker, more concentrated and exact while performing different tasks in the presence of a dog, whilst adhering to instructions more closely.
In contrast, stress has been known to inhibit learning, memory, attention and concentration by inhibiting the execute functions in the prefrontal cortex. By the same token, stress reduction facilitates learning. The presence of, as well as the interaction with an animal, leads to an increase in dopamine and serotonin, which also collate with attention and concentration as well as the activation of the explorative system in the brain.
The aim of this study was to investigate the immediate effects of dogs on reading performance in children with below average reading skills. 36 children participate, 17 boys and 19 girls in third grade from three different schools in Vienna. The results of the study indicated the following:
- When comparing the two test sessions independent of whether a dog was present or not, there were no differences for the physiological variables or the behavioural variables. The results for the reading tests did however differ between the first and the second test session; children performed better in the second test session than the first, and in repeated reading they read more words per second in the first test session compared to the second.
- Reading scores showed no significant differences between the group that had a dog present and the one that did not. Sentence and text comprehension did not differ significantly either.
- In neither sessions 1 or 2 were there significant differences between the dog group and the non-dog group in reading speed although in the first session but not the second, children with a dog present showed a greater improvement from run 1 to 2.
- In session 1, children in the dog setting showed less nervous movements and tended to talk less than children who had no dog present.
- In session 2, children had a lower cortisol reaction without a dog present than with a dog.
- For neither session 1 or 2, it was found that there was a significant difference in the mean heart rate between children who had a dog present during the session than those who had not. Regarding mean heart rate, both groups had a lower heart rate without the dog than with the dog.
There was some short term improvement of reading performance and minor effects of cortisol and behaviour as well as a trend in mean heart rate but none of the other major physiological effects. A possible explanation is the activation of the appetitive system – an arousing effect of the dog along with increased motivation. The presence of a dog tended to cause even more arousal than the confrontation with an unknown new situation. Although most studies found a calming effect, an arousing effect of the dogs was also found in the cortisol AUCi in the second session but not the first session. However, the children showed less nervous movements and talked less in the presence of a dog compared to without the dog in the first session, indicating a calming effect.
In conclusion, having a dog present activated the appetitive system in the children causing arousal or excitement related to increased motivation and concentration. Reading performance was only slightly enhanced, which in contrast with other reading with dog studies, reported clear positive effects. It appears that repeated sessions with the dog are essential in achieving substantial effects on reading performance.
Link to full original research article:
Front. Vet. Sci., 15 June 2017