Two rows of dog runs run the length of a cavernous space with a concrete floor. The residents form a diverse group.
There’s Kiera, a lumbering brown and white pit bull mix, her face streaked with gray, her pleading brown eyes dulled with age. Eight random breed brown and black puppies run and trip over each other, enjoying themselves and the onlookers. Gizmo, a fluffy pomeranian, proudly struts around his enclosure like a runway model.
Eager barking erupts as eight preschool through second graders pour in, followed by their parents and a throng of other adults.
If they didn’t bring their own book, they can choose one from the bookshelf in the Gulf Coast Humane Society’s dog room and then find a four-legged resident to read to.
Welcome to the monthly Reading to Dogs hour, which includes research. Here’s what happens:
- Children, some of whom aren’t avid readers or don’t yet know how, sit on the floor next to their dog of choice, turn the pages of books, and tell stories.
- Your parents listen without having to take over the sessions.
- The dogs may not understand the words, but they love that someone stopped by to speak to them as equals. Many sit right next to their gate and listen intently. Call it doggy enrichment.
- And FGCU researchers observing the activities can gauge the children’s interactions — their reading skills, as well as their emotional and social responses, how alert and engaged they are.
Other benefits are also apparent.
“It’s definitely a great experience for the kids,” says Kat Brown, an FGCU senior with a major in psychology and a minor in French. A distinguished student, she works as a research assistant to Melissa Rodriguez Meehan and Nate Turcotte, FGCU Assistant Professors of Education, on the project. “They don’t feel judged while reading, and they also come into contact with animals that they might not get to see at home. They can read aloud without judgement, and also see other children reading and enjoying it.”
Meehan says the kids enjoy choosing their own books to read, something they can’t always do.
“I encourage that freedom,” she says. “They read what they want, how they want, with whatever dog they want. It helps with motivation. We found that participants experienced an increase in self-confidence and motivation to read.”
It’s also a great way for teens to get an early start in community involvement.
“A couple of parents pointed out that the reason they wanted their kids to come was to instill in them the idea of volunteering,” Brown said. “I think the program helps develop their empathy. Even when they come in with a few, they see dogs reacting to their presence. I heard a kid ask for the donation box as he walked in. ‘Why are these dogs here?’ ‘Did you ever have a family?’ I feel like this is part of the process of developing empathy.”
This project grew out of something that began when Meehan was a kindergarten teacher earning her PhD studying with Professor Tunde Szecsi, Program Coordinator, Department of Teacher Preparation Programs at FGCU College of Education. Today, Meehan (’10, MPA; ’20, Ed.D.) is a colleague of Szecsi and interim program coordinator while her mentor is on sabbatical.
First, a small group of children read to the dogs informally. Meehan, who has three dogs of her own – one adopted from the Gulf Coast Humane Society – has been engaged with her own students and some of the school’s older students. It was one of the older participants who built the bookcase that readers still use today.
“I asked a little boy who was talking to a dog named Senior why he read to dogs and he said, ‘Dogs are great listeners.’ I thought it was beautiful,” says Meehan.
Next came a Facebook page where parents could register their children to participate. “The program exists, so I thought it was good to use it as a research project,” she says. “We can learn more about the successes and challenges and make more people aware of them. We can give them feedback on what worked for us and what didn’t. For me it is a very nice project. It’s kids and dogs – my two favorites.”
What’s not to like?
Gizmo the Pomeranian appears enchanted as Wilhelmina Greer, 6, sits on the floor and reads him a story. Her father, Brian Greer, also listens intently and holds up his phone so her mother, Amanda Tovar, who had to work and couldn’t come with her, can Facetime watch as a first grader at Gulf Elementary School in Cape Coral reads a story about George to Gizmo Dog.
“It’s great,” says her father. “She’s practicing reading and the dogs are getting attention. We all love it.”
The Fleitas family regularly attends the monthly meetings. In fact, they’re good friends with Chopper, a pit bull who’s been at the shelter for four months. Nico, 5, is in preschool at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Fort Myers. His 7-year-old brother Junior is in second grade there.
“We’re coming because of the dogs,” says Nico, looking up briefly from his “Wonders of America” book. “We like to read to them.”
Her mother Angela agrees.
“Junior doesn’t like to read most of the time, but he likes to do it here,” she says. “They also have more empathy towards the dogs now. And he really enjoys reading to Chopper.”
That they help remove the stigma attached to shelter dogs — that there’s something wrong with them and they wouldn’t make good pets — is another plus, Meehan says, that they found through their research. “You see firsthand that all types of dogs, even pit bulls, are really nice. And it supports understanding of what shelters do.”
After the hour-long session, Humane Society volunteers bring Chopper to the front lawn where they can pet him.
It’s hard to say who’s happier when the Fleitas boys are petting Chopper’s soft black fur and he’s snuggling close to her, cock throbbing and a doggy smile on his gray muzzle as he lands kisses on her cheeks and ears.
A week later, the Reading with Dogs Facebook page announces that after 132 days at the Fort Myers shelter, Chopper has a family of his own.
Meehan says she usually fills two groups in one Saturday and hopes to expand the program to other shelters so more children and more pets can experience the joy of reading.
Children of all ages can participate if space is available. Apply to attend Reading with the Dogs SWFL via Facebook.
Keywords: fgcu, Florida Gulf Coast University, Gulf Coast Human Society, literacy, reading