"Strong reading skills are among the essential tools necessary to develop a scientifically literate youth population," said Smith. Those skills, he added, are facilitated by reading aloud, a practice some children find difficult and intimidating.
At the end of the studies, both of which await publication, the youths reported feeling "relaxed and more confident" when reading to a dog versus an adult or their peers.
That's because students who stumble over new words know the dogs won't make fun of them. As a result their reading skills improve and self-esteem grows, the researchers said.
"The dogs are not judging; the dogs are not correcting," explained ARF manager Erika Hart. "I think that's part of why it works to an extent."
Using dogs as reading mentors has been around for more than a decade with dozens of programs offered nationwide. But until now only anecdotal evidence claimed it worked, said Smith.
He hopes to do a follow-up study, if funding becomes available.
In 2006 ARF started its popular All Ears Reading program. About a dozen volunteers and their pets regularly visit libraries and schools in Walnut Creek, Calif., and surrounding communities.
Hart said all the dogs passed basic obedience tests and displayed the right temperament for the job -- friendly, mild-mannered and mellow.
For children frustrated by verbally connecting words, family pets might also help jump-start their reading skills if done on a regular basis over time.
Hart from ARF often encourages kids to read to their animals at home, no matter what the species.
"I tell kids to read to their fish, read to their hamsters and read to their cats," she said. "If you've got a pet, try reading to it."
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