They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but experts believe that canine friends have much to teach young children, both intellectually and emotionally.
"One of the most important lessons that children can learn from dogs is how to be empathetic," says Rise VanFleet, Ph.D., president of Family Enhancement and Play Therapy Center Inc. "With the help of parents, they can learn to see how the dog feels, to respect the dog's body and space and to respond appropriately when the dog is uncomfortable with what they are doing."
For example, it's important for children to learn not to wrap their arms around a dog's neck. "Usually, dogs do not like this," VanFleet says. "Instead, they learn to scratch the dog's chest and see how the dog likes that even better. They learn to develop friendships based on mutual respect."
By spending time with dogs, children can come to understand how to have fun but stay within bounds. "It's very beneficial for children and dogs to play together, but that play must be supervised," she says. "Children can learn to take turns, avoid getting too rough and settle down after an active play time." She recommends Doggone Safe's website, http://www.doggonesafe.com, for pointers on child/pet interaction.
Additionally, dogs can teach children new skills, especially when they are involved in positive dog training. "Even very young children can learn how to communicate better through training using humane approaches," VanFleet says. "They can see their own success as the dog responds to them and their self-confidence grows through this skill-building."
In canine-assisted play therapy, children overcome social, emotional and behavioral problems, she says. "Sometimes it is easier for them to trust dogs than people at the beginning of therapy."
There are a number of different reading programs that involve dogs, VanFleet adds. "The dogs need to be comfortable lying still while children read to them. This has been shown to improve children's reading skills, and they can become less self-conscious about reading aloud."
"Dogs not only help children learn to read, they help children learn to love reading," says Michael Amiri, co-author with his wife, Linda, of the children's book "Shellie the Magical Dog." "And that's true for children with and without learning disabilities."
A Minnesota pilot program called PAWSitive Readers found that trained therapy dogs helped 10 of 14 grade-school participants improve their reading skills by one grade level. Moreover, a University of California study showed that children who read to the family dog improved their ability by an average of 12 percent.
"Most of us have memories of reading out loud in class," Amiri says. "Though we may have been proficient readers, the fear of stumbling on a word in front of everyone was a constant source of anxiety."
Dogs are excellent for unconditional, nonjudgmental love; they won't laugh if and when mistakes happen. Most dogs are polite listeners, too, he says.
Jane Paley, author of the book "Hooper Finds a Family," says, "When kids aren't confident readers, it's because they feel like they are being judged. But a dog doesn't correct your pronunciation. The worst thing a dog will do is yawn. The students begin to read out loud to a dog, and they get confident, and they get a kick out of it."
"I never had a dog growing up, which is too bad because I think I would have had an easier time gaining self-confidence," concludes Amiri, who writes about his Maltese. "If a little dog can give me -- a grown man -- more confidence, imagine what a pet can do for kids."