6 min read


Can Dogs Know How to Read?



6 min read


Can Dogs Know How to Read?


Did you know that reading to dogs helps children learn to read? Animal shelters and schools across the nation have established partnerships in which the rescued dogs visit with early readers. It's good for the children to practice their reading. The experience is good for the dogs, giving them loving attention and socialization opportunities.  

With the right training and positive reinforcement, there are dogs that can learn to read, too! Fernie the Labrador Retriever is one example of a dog who learned to read flash card words for commands such as "Sit" or "Lay Down". This reading dog is a comfort and motivator for children that they can learn to read, too!  

Trainers of service dogs have discovered that dogs can learn to read signs and markers. As we learn more about the intelligence of our dogs, we are finding ways to develop their capacity to communicate with us by reading.


Signs Your Dog Can Read

Our dogs are social animals and reading is a social behavior. Print is a form of communication. As we live and work with our dogs, our ability to communicate with them is important. While our dogs cannot write or speak words, they can show us what they are thinking by their body language. 

Many schools and animal shelters will bring children and dogs together for reading time. For the safety of all concerned, it is important for the handlers to read the dog’s body language to establish the comfort level of the dog with the child and the situation. 

A dog that is happy has relaxed eyes and eyelids. You will see the dog blinking. The ears will be relaxed and down. Dogs will appear relaxed in stance and body posture. You might even find the dog snuggling up to the reading child. The mouth will be relaxed and open with the tongue loose. If you see the dog licking lips and yawning, this is a sign that the dog is submissive.

In a training situation, you will want to watch for signs that your dog is attentive and responsive to your interaction. The dog will appear alert, with a forward stance on the toes. The attentive dog will have ears up and a smooth nose and mouth. 

The training session should be joyful and the dog may become playful, inviting you with a play bow or even a quick bark. The obedient dog will follow the command and attend to the trainer in anticipation of positive reinforcement. 

Be aware of signs of boredom or confusion. The dog may start repeating behaviors, searching for a response that will get them the reward. With attentiveness to your dog’s responsiveness to your training, there are many skills you can develop together.

Body Language

Signs that your dog is understanding a cue you are giving them include:

  • Alert
  • Lip Licking
  • Blinking
  • Tongue Hanging

Other Signs

More signs that your dog is getting the command (whether it be written or otherwise) are:

  • Obeying It
  • Paying Close Attention
  • Quickly Responding

The History of Dogs and Reading


Reading is a social activity. It is the use of symbols to communicate and share the stories, ideas, events, and feelings of our lives. Early man recorded the events of their lives with writings in caves, on cliffs, in tombs and on various forms of tablet, parchment, and paper. The symbols of writing have evolved from pictorial images to systems of symbols representing the parts of words of our languages. 

While spoken language has evolved naturally, reading and writing are inventions. The Phoenicians developed the first alphabet of consonants in 2000 B.C.and the Greeks added vowels 1000 years later. Over time, reading ability has evolved to become a marker of social status. For example, there was a time when a person who could read a few words and do simple math was regarded as trustworthy and of social and economic importance. 

As technologies for writing have improved, there has been greater access for persons to become readers. Reading extends human oral communication and, since language is a cognitive function, extends human intellectual capacities. In other words, reading makes us smarter. 

Now, let us consider our relationship with dogs as our reading access has increased. Our early relationship with dogs is believed to have been forged from mutual needs for survival and the social nature of man and dog. 

Over the centuries, dogs have been bred to serve human purposes. A panel of experts rated the intelligence of dog breeds. They established that the breeds more recently developed have higher intelligence for communicating with humans and learning capacity. 

The five smartest breeds of dog include the Border Collie, Poodle and German Shepherd. Trainers believe that all dogs can learn to read commands with the right conditioning. It may be that the future dogs are readers and that we develop technologies that improve our communication with them through print.

The Science of Reading Dogs


Reading teachers will tell you that there is basic reading that involves the ability to associate letters with the recognition of words and there is reading comprehension, which is the ability to draw meaning from words. 

In the case of Fernie, the reading Labrador Retriever, her trainer, teacher Nik Garner at Winford Primary School, was able to teach her to recognize and follow command words, such as "Sit". Studies have established that dogs understand spoken language and process words similarly to humans in the left hemisphere of the brain. Dogs have been trained to have a vocabulary of about 165 words. 

Dogs have the language capacity of a toddler at about two and a half years. Can your toddler read? Actually, toddlers do show signs of trying on reading behaviors. Toddlers will recognize signs. They can pick out images and logos. A toddler may recognize their name or even learn to sing the alphabet song. 

Dogs have the visual acuity to discriminate colors, shapes, and patterns. They also have simple vocabulary. With these combined skills, they have the potential to demonstrate early reading skills, the same as our young children. 

Dr. Bergin of the Bonnie Bergin Assistance Dog Institute works with dogs to train them to serve persons with visual impairments and other handicapping conditions. The dogs must learn to recognize or read words like "Exit", restroom signs and other markers. 

She starts her training with the dogs when they are very young pups. Dr. Bergin has been working with dogs to go to and use signs such as "Pet Me" or "Feed Me" to communicate. She has established that dogs can read up to 20 five-letter words. 

Dr. Bergin believes that reading dogs are the dogs of the future and we can develop the teaching and learning strategies to develop these skills as part of our human-canine bond. With the right training and support, you may be able to teach your dog some beginner-reader words.

Training Your Dog to Read


To teach your dog to read, you will want to begin when your dog is young - but older dogs can learn, too, as long as they do not have vision problems. Make flash cards for your dog. Place one word on each flashcard. Begin with words for commands your dog already knows. 

For example, words such as down, sit, stand, roll, turn (spin), shake, speak, bow, up (place paws on the edge of a table), kiss, and go to bed all work well. Make your flashcard on paper in landscape orientation using large block letters. You will want to use rewards that are motivating to your dog, such as clickers and treats. Dr. Bergin has identified 5 steps to training your dog to read.

Step 1. Get Ready. Stand in front of your dog with the flashcard behind your back. Have the clicker or reward in view of your dog. 

Step 2. Present the flashcard and 

Step 3. Immediately say the command word. If you use hand signals, then associate the hand signal with showing the flashcard.

Step 4. Hold the card and wait for your dog to do the command.

Step 5. Reward the dog. As soon as the dog does the behavior, praise and reward your pet. Move the card away from your dog's sight. You only want to show the flashcard when you are making the command. If you were to leave the flashcard in the animal's sight, it would be like saying the command over and over once the dog has done the behavior. 

Repeat and give your dog lots of enthusiastic praise in your practice sessions.

Have questions or concerns about your pet?

Chat with a veterinary professional in the Wag! app 24/7.

Get Vet Chat

By a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Published: 04/16/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

Wag! Specialist
Does your pet have a supplement plan?

Learn more in the Wag! app

Five starsFive starsFive starsFive starsFive stars

43k+ reviews


© 2022 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.