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
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.
- Lip licking
- Tongue hanging
- Obeying it
- Paying close attention
- Quickly responding
The History of Dogs and Reading
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
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
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.
How to React to Your Dog Learning to Read:
Teach reading with commands your dog has mastered.
Only show the reading word in association with the command word.
Use motivating rewards.
Be enthusiastic with treats, praise, and clickers.
Remember to read to your dog as a shared experience.