How reading to pets can help a child’s development -- and the pet

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Is your young student not interesting in reading? Or maybe they don’t have the confidence to read out loud in class?

Having your child read to pets might help change that.

Some local animal shelters have tapped into this phenomenon with reading programs that are gaining popularity. News4Jax anchor Joy Purdy’s 4th-grade daughter got involved in the Cat Tales program at the Safe Animal Shelter in Middleburg.

She and other local grade school students in grades K through 6, can visit the shelter, bring a book and read to the cats in the adoption rooms. The kids are rewarded with small toys after so many visits, but the real reward is helping the animals get ready for their forever homes.

”It’s all about socializing the cats,” said Sherry Mansfield who recently retired as the shelter’s executive director but still plays an integral role in the day-to-day operations. ”[It offers] a chance for kids who are shy about reading out loud. The cats don’t judge, they don’t care, they just like having someone sit there and do some rhythmic sounds with them. They love it.”

Mansfield’s right, according to Nemours Adolescent Psychologist Dr. Lisa Schilling.

“The animals have a captive audience that is showing them affection and attention, which encourages reading,” Dr. Schilling said.

Dr. Schilling said research shows interacting with animals helps decrease blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones. Animals can play such an important role that Dr. Schilling and a team of specialists at Nemours Children’s Health are studying therapy for kids involving animals, using miniature horses.

It’s a program they hope to kick off this holiday season.

Dr. Schilling said reading to pets can also give kids assuredness, like 10-year-old Noah.

His mom, News4Jax Morning Show anchor Melanie Lawson, said Noah and his younger sister Leah both started reading to the dogs and cats at the Jacksonville Humane Society several months ago.

“Noah is kind of a little introverted, especially when he’s reading. He wants to do it by himself and quietly,” Lawson said. “And so this has made him kind of read out loud, have a little bit more confidence to want to read, you know, at times that it’s not required.”

The Humane Society’s “Pawsitive Reading” program, sponsored by the Jim Moran Foundation, has 200 to 300 active young readers who visit regularly throughout the year. This, in turn, benefits potential pet owners.

“People are way more likely to want to meet a dog, and hopefully adopt a dog, if the dog comes to the front of the kennel as they’re walking by,” said Savanna New, Jacksonville Humane Society Education Manager. “‘Pawsitive Reading’ does help encourage the dogs to come to the front of the kennel when people are there.”

Also, if the opportunity is there, being able to choose the pet they read to is also important for young readers, like 8-year-old Mason Davis.

“At first he was very frightened,” Mason said of the young dog sitting in front of him. “And then I started reading to him and he started calming down, so I realized he started to like me.”

Whether it’s for class credit or their love of animals, Dr. Schilling said reading to pets is a benefit that’s as old as time.

“Forever we’ve been interacting with animals, and that bond between humans and animals has been special and important.” Dr. Schilling said.

The Jacksonville Humane Society also has an outreach program, in which it brings its Pawsitive Reading out to disenfranchised students in local community centers.

About the Author:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.