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Can Dogs Learn How To Read?

September 04, 2009 03:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
A Wisconsin woman claims her dog can read, highlighting the capacity of canine brains and underscoring the benefits of the human-canine relationship.

Klaus the Reading Dog

After she saw a dog on TV that could read, Rita Parr, a hardware store owner in Eau Claire, Wis., wanted to train her German shepherd Klaus to read, too, Christena T. O'Brien reports for the Leader-Telegram.

To train Klaus, Parr used red paper cards on which she wrote simple commands in large letters. With patience and a large supply of dog treats, she “held up the cards and told Klaus what they said, and, after a few tries, he seemed to recognize the words,” O’Brien reports.

Opinion & Analysis: Do dogs understand more than we think?

Although Klaus’ ability sounds far-fetched, Bonnie Bergin, president and chief academic officer of the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Santa Rosa, Calif., believes that, with proper training, ordinary dogs can be taught “how to recognize and respond to written commands,” O’Brien writes.

Bergin is the author of the book “Teach Your Dog to Read,” and strongly believes that “the possibilities of the human canine partnership are limited only by human imagination.” Confident in the ability of dogs to understand, communicate and further interact with humans, the programs at the Bergin University of Canine Studies promote a “deeper understanding of the human-dog bond” and its beneficial relation to society.

In July, Discovery News reported on two studies regarding the interaction between dogs and humans. The studies found that “[d]ogs possess a two-year-old child's capacity to understand human pointing gestures, with dogs requiring next to zero learning time to figure out the visual communication.” In addition, “[d]ue to domestication, dogs appear to be predisposed to read other human visual signals, including head-turning and gazing.”

This seemingly innate capacity to understand and relate to human forms of communication stresses the often-underestimated ability of the canine brain, and suggests that the possibility of dogs understanding written commands may be a little less of an impossibility.

Reading to Dogs Is Beneficial for Kids

The interaction between dogs and humans can be mutually beneficial in a variety of ways. The R.E.A.D.  (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program, for instance, aims to improve children’s literacy skills by having them read to dogs. Just like trained mentors, “R.E.A.D. dogs are registered therapy animals who volunteer with their owner/handlers as a team, going to schools, libraries and many other settings as reading companions for children,” the Intermountain Therapy Animals Web site explains. According to R.E.A.D.’s brochure, “When a R.E.A.D. dog is listening, the environment is transformed, a child’s dread is replaced by eager anticipation, and learning occurs.”

Related Topic: Are dogs capable of reading emotions?

In November 2008, a study from England’s University of Lincoln reported that dogs use some of the same mechanisms as humans to interpret human expressions. Like humans, dogs look left toward the right-hand side of human faces, a mechanism known as “left gaze bias.” The experiment, led by Dr. Kun Guo, showed that dogs exhibit “left gaze bias” only when they looked at the images of human faces.

According to the New Scientist, Guo suggests that this behavior has been adapted after hundreds of years of living with humans, as a way to make sense of our emotions. The journal also noted that previous studies suggest the right side of the face may display emotions “more accurately and intensely” than the left.

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