Teaching Your Dog to Read
No, really! Dogs can be taught to recognize written words as cues.
[Updated October 3, 2017]
TEACH YOUR DOGS TO READ: OVERVIEW
1. Make flash cards for the five behaviors your dog knows best and start teaching your dog to read.
2. Work in short sessions, progress slowly, and give high-value rewards for success.
3. Think of different ways to incorporate reading into your dog’s life and training.
Curling up with a good book? Maybe your dog would like to read one, too.
Don’t laugh. If Bonnie Bergin, EdD, has her way, dogs all over the world will soon be reading – maybe not books and articles, but individual words or sets of words strung together. Now president of the Bonnie Bergin Assistance Dog Institute, the world’s only academic college that awards associate and master’s degrees in dog studies, Dr. Bergin originated the service dog concept when she founded Canine Companions for Independence more than 30 years ago.
The dogs she worked with were so intelligent and responsive that from time to time she thought about teaching them to read. The idea stayed in the back of her mind until 2002, when she began a canine reading experiment. Now she has written a book, Teach Your Dog to Read: A Unique Step-by-Step Program to Expand Your Dog’s Mind and Strengthen the Bond Between You, which invites everyone to join her. “It’s an exciting project,” she says, “because we’re on the brink of a revolution. Dogs who can read are the dogs of the future.” In the future that Dr. Bergin envisions, dogs and their human companions will have a means of communicating that goes far beyond what’s possible now. Dogs may, for example, combine their exceptional sense of smell with their ability to read and help medical doctors identify specific diseases, such as different types of cancer.
Service dogs working with the visually impaired will be able to recognize and look for exit signs, appropriate restroom signs, and other important markers. Pet dogs will recognize and pay attention to signs that warn them away from furniture or kitchen counters, just as they will look for signs that invite them to relieve themselves in designated areas at highway rest stops. Dogs participating in reading programs with children, adolescents, or adults will inspire and encourage those who are struggling to read by showing how they are learning to read themselves. Most important, she says, will be the deepening of everyday communication between dogs and their humans.
“I have been training my own dogs to go to posted signs saying water, treat, or pet me, to tell me what they want,” says Dr. Bergin. “We’re still in the early stages of this two-way communication, but it has incredible implications. Dogs who can read will find it much easier to share information, and the possibilities are endless. In every way, teaching your dog to read can help your dog be a smarter, better companion, and it will deepen and strengthen the bond that connects you.”
How to Get Your Dog Reading
Puppies raised at the Assistance Dog Institute are introduced to the written word at just a few weeks of age. They literally grow up reading. But while puppies and younger dogs may have an easier time learning to read, it’s never too late (assuming that vision problems don’t interfere) to teach old dogs new words. Your first reading lesson can be this very afternoon. All you need are your dog, yourself, and a sheet of paper.
For those who would like to use Dr. Bergin’s flash cards, her printed cues and cartoon stick figures can be downloaded from her website. But you can make your own flash cards by printing words by hand in large, dark block letters or by using your computer’s largest, darkest font (avoid fonts with squiggles, serifs, or other elaborations). Print one word or cue per page in black ink on plain white paper, printed sideways (“landscape” orientation). You can laminate the cards for durability. Begin with a cue that your dog knows well. “But don’t start with sit,” she suggests. “Everyone always starts every training session with sit, and it’s a pattern dogs come to expect. I suggest starting with down or some other command.” Make a list of 5 or 10 cues that your dog responds to readily when you give a verbal instruction. Dr. Bergin’s list includes down, sit, stand, roll (roll halfway over and expose stomach), turn (spin), shake, speak, bow, up (place paws on the edge of a table, countertop, desk, or wall), kiss, and go to bed. Save behaviors that involve a prop (such as placing paws up on a table or fetching a particular toy) until the dog is adept at reading other cues, because positioning yourself near a prop is a dead giveaway, and you want your dog to focus on the card and its word, not on your body language. “We know that dogs can learn to read up to 20 written words,” she says, “from three-letter words that represent the most basic commands, to five-letter words that call for more dramatic responses, such as shake or speak, to three-word sentences such as ‘Get the shoe.’”
Start in a quiet room with no distractions. Clicker-trained dogs or dogs trained with positive reinforcement, says Dr. Bergin, are most likely to offer a variety of behaviors when they’re motivated to earn a reward, and motivated dogs who offer different behaviors learn quickly.
Day 1 Lesson Plan
Dr. Bergin recommends following these five steps in your first reading lesson (“down” is a perfect first word) and whenever you introduce a new word.
1. Get ready.
Hold your flash card in one hand behind your back. Hold a treat, ball, toy, or other favorite reward in the other, or, if you’re holding a clicker, place the reward where your dog can see it or knows it’s there.
Without touching your dog or giving any cues ahead of time, have your dog stand in front of you. Then:
2. Present the card, and 3. Immediately say the cue.
“Timing is essential,” says Dr. Bergin. “Your dog should get a glimpse of the word a split second before you say it. Also, if your dog is more used to hand signals than verbal commands, give the appropriate signal with one hand just as you bring the flash card out from behind your back with the other.” Avoid making eye contact with your dog, as that is a distraction. Look down at the top of the card or past your dog (see photo, below left).
4. Hold the card.
Hold the flash card still. Be sure you’re holding the sign with your fingers away from its letters. Don’t move. Wait for your dog to lie down.
5. Reward your dog.
As soon as your dog lies down, say “Yes!” in an enthusiastic, high-pitched voice. Dr. Bergin recommends clipping the “Yes!” so that it almost sounds like “Yesp!” as this will help you say the word faster. If you normally use a clicker to mark the end of a behavior, click as soon as the dog lies down.
While saying “Yes!” or clicking, move the card behind your back or set it on a table where your dog can’t see it. Leaving the card in sight is like repeating a cue after your dog has already performed the behavior.
Reward your dog with praise, a vigorous pet, a food treat or toy, or all of these so that he feels appreciated and looks forward to doing this again.
Repeat the exercise by doing the same five steps in exactly the same way. Then repeat it again.
During the fourth run-through, if your dog has been responding readily to the verbal cue, present the card but don’t say anything or give a hand signal. Instead, just hold the card in front of you. Don’t jiggle or move the card. Hold still, exactly as you did in the previous exercise.
If your dog hesitates for more than a few seconds or seems confused, go back to step 3 and say the word “down” or give your hand signal. With time and practice, you’ll learn whether it’s more helpful to repeat a cue or to wait and let your dog figure it out. As soon as he lies down without any prompting from you in response to of the “down” card, celebrate! Now is the time for over-the-top treats, praise, and enthusiastic rewards.
“Dogs love, need, and crave emotion,” says Dr. Bergin. “That’s why I prefer the word ‘Yes!’ to the click of a clicker. Charged feelings, preferably positive feelings, reinforce behavior. So shower your dog with praise.”
End today’s practice session on a high note and continue tomorrow. Limit each day’s training to six to nine exercises per flash card, no more than 15 minutes total. With young puppies, do considerably less, working in shorter sessions.
Introducing a Second and Third Word
To determine whether your dog is ready for a new word, test her to see if she responds to the “down” flash card without a verbal prompt or hand signal three out of five times. To introduce a new word, such as “sit,” follow the same five steps as before.
Most dogs anticipate the card that they already learned, so don’t be surprised if your dog lies down. If that happens, don’t correct or punish her. Simply move back, encouraging your dog to follow, and repeat the sequence of actions.
Many dogs sit before lying down, so if this happens, you have a split second in which to click or say “Yes!” while she is still sitting.
As soon as your dog successfully sits, remove the card and reward her. Do the exercise two or three more times to reinforce the “sit” cue.
Now that your dog recognizes the word sit, start to mix things up. Without breaking stride or indicating in any way that something different is about to happen, show her the word down without saying anything.
“Most dogs respond correctly by lying down,” says Dr. Bergin. “They get it! They can discriminate between the two words. If your dog responds this way, congratulations are in order. Give a resoundingly positive ‘Yes!’ and be generous with praise and high-value food treats.”
If your dog doesn’t recognize the difference between sit and down, practice with each card a few more times and help out with verbal cues if needed. If your dog offers an incorrect behavior, either ignore the behavior or say “No” in a calm, serious, low-key voice. Saying “No” in this way tells the dog that this isn’t the behavior you want, so try something else. Put a lot of emotion into your “Yes!” whenever your dog does something correctly, and keep emotion out of your “No” when she does something else. (See “Opinions About ‘No Reward Markers’ Vary,” below.)
End on a positive note – when your dog does the behavior you asked for, with or without a verbal cue, and you make a big fuss – and continue tomorrow. Limit each day’s training to about six to nine exercises with each card, and with puppies, do less.
“It’s important to stop while you’re ahead,” says Dr. Bergin. “It’s easy to become enthused, especially if your dog catches on fast, but if you push too hard, you’ll exhaust your dog, feel disappointed, and you’ll both burn out. The best thing you can do is end early, end on a high note, and let your dog’s mind grapple with this new challenge while sleeping. A good night’s rest can improve the next day’s performance.”
Continue to work in short training sessions. When your dog knows three words, start mixing them up and present them randomly. Always be sure your dog responds correctly to each word at least three out of five times before adding a new word. Use the same procedure for introducing each new word.
“Be patient,” says Dr. Bergin. “Whenever you introduce a new word, your dog’s overall performance will decline. Your dog knows sit, down, and stand, but when you introduce the card for bow, he forgets everything. This is when reading becomes an effort for your dog, just as it was for us when we were kids. Be patient, stick to the program, work in short sessions, review the cards, and give verbal cues as needed. Your dog will be stretching his mind in new ways, and that’s hard work. Do everything you can to make the experience rewarding.”
By the third word, many dogs express their frustration by barking or vocalizing. Don’t correct or even acknowledge this, just ignore it.
Motivated dogs may offer every behavior they can think of in an effort to win the treat or reward. If your dog runs through her repertoire by sitting, lying down, standing up, spinning around, waving, bowing, rolling over, and so forth, don’t smile or laugh. Keep a straight face and calmly ignore or say “No” to each wrong answer and give a highly enthusiastic “Yes!” for each right one.
Some dogs begin shutting down when they feel confused, becoming less physically active and offering fewer behaviors. “You have to counteract that lethargy by being a good coach,” says Dr. Bergin. “Use whatever tools you have to infuse your dog with your infectious energy and enthusiasm for the upcoming exercises. Really cheer your dog on, wave favorite treats and toys, and make the whole experience positive, upbeat, happy, and rewarding, not a boring chore.”
A lack of interest at the beginning of a reading session is a bad sign, suggesting that your dog may be on the brink of burnout. If she turns her head away, walks away, or just doesn’t want to practice, take a break. “If I had to choose between burnout or stopping prematurely,” says Dr. Bergin, “I’d stop prematurely. Put the cards away for a few days or a week. Renew your dog’s enthusiasm for life and training with favorite activities. And when you resume, keep your sessions short and positive.”
In her book, Dr. Bergin provides detailed step-by-step lesson plans, training tips, and advice for preventing and solving problems. One chapter helps volunteers train their dogs for work with children in schools and libraries.
She also describes how learning to read will help dogs conceptualize, understand new ideas, make new connections, communicate more effectively, and enhance their relationships with humans.
Opinions About ‘No Reward Markers’ Vary
In this article, Dr. Bergin describes using the word “no” in a specific way: as a “no reward marker” or NRM. This is a unique and neutral signal that lets the dog know that the behavior he is exhibiting is not the desired one, so he should try something else to find the desired behavior, for which he will be rewarded. Dr. Begin recommends keeping any emotion out of your voice when using “no” in this way, so the dog is not discouraged, but merely understands that he should try something else. The word is offered as information, not as punishment. “A firm “No” should not sound threatening, angry, frustrated, or disappointed,” says Dr. Bergin. “Use it to inform, redirect, and guide.”
However, the success of the word “no” as an NRM may hinge on more than just the owner’s scrupulousness at saying “no” in a neutral way. Unfortunately, many dog owners use the word “No!” to stop their dogs from doing anything the owner doesn’t like – chasing a cat, sniffing a countertop (preparatory to jumping up and snatching some food, perhaps), barking at someone through the living room window. That’s why some dogs develop an unconscious negative association with the word; it becomes a precursor to being punished, or is experienced by the dog as punishment itself. When these dogs hear “no,” even in a neutral tone, they may just give up, thinking anything they do next will be wrong.
If your dog “gets” the concept of the neutral NRM, and keeps trying various behaviors when you mark his incorrect attempts with the word “no,” you’re doing a good job, just as Dr. Bergin describes! However, if he “shuts down” or stops offering different behaviors when you use the word, try saying it more brightly and cheerfully. Or, better yet, try a different NRM, one without any negative associations for the dog. Some trainers use a word like “Oops!” which naturally comes out of most people’s mouths cheerfully. Other suggestions include “not!”, “try again!” (or just, “again!”), “next!”, or “cold!” (from the children’s game where a person tries to find a hidden object and is told “warmer” or colder” based on his movements as he searches).
After her first reading experiment with dogs being trained at her Assistance Dog Institute, Dr. Bergin spent the summer of 2003 studying the history of human reading. She learned that humans began their written communication by drawing pictures, which eventually became stick figures, which were eventually turned on their sides, which is how they became phonemes (symbolic sounds) and letters of alphabets.
“Our dogs were already recognizing words made of letters,” she says, “so I moved on to cartoon stick figures, which I created on my computer. I was amazed at how quickly the dogs made the connection between their word command flash cards and the stick figures that illustrated those commands. I could show them a stick figure and they all did the corresponding behavior without being taught.”
Dr. Bergin then brought a Stanford University researcher to the Institute to help her explore the canine mind with regard to reading. “I learned that printed words are hard for dogs to understand because they are abstract shapes that have to be identified and responded to, while stick figures might be easier to decipher but understanding them involves a higher level of cognition.”
What amazed Dr. Bergin the most was the ability of reading dogs to conceptualize, to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.
“I know that there are people who still believe dogs can’t think,” she says, “despite all kinds of scientific evidence to the contrary. Well, up to this point I knew dogs could think, but I didn’t think they thought very much. I would hear stories from people who got assistance dogs from me about how brilliant their dogs were, and I’d always take those stories with a grain of salt. I tended to dismiss them as anecdotal reports, nothing based on objective science, and I didn’t pay much attention. Now I realize that the reports were probably quite accurate, not the exaggerated claims I had assumed them to be, and I wish I could turn the clock back and hear them all again. I would pay much more attention.”
Dr. Bergin also learned that people who don’t read cannot conceptualize the way people who read can. “This helps explain why people who can’t read are so often stuck and unable to change their lives. It’s because they can’t imagine anything different. Learning to read unlocks all kinds of possibilities for them. I’m convinced that the same will be true for dogs and that dogs who can read will demonstrate degrees of intelligence, problem solving ability, and talent that we can’t begin to imagine.
“The possibilities for reading dogs are endless,” she says. “We just need to keep exploring them. Reading dogs are revolutionaries – and by teaching them to be literate beings, we can participate in their revolution. When you teach a dog to read, you’re not just teaching him a cute trick to show your friends. You’re developing his mind and helping him become a better problem solver. My hope is that these simple training techniques will transform your expectations about what your dog can learn and do at home, and that it will change the way that veterinarians, dog trainers, and breeders approach dog training forever.”
Dogs Help Promote Reading Skills in Others
Not only can dogs learn to read, they can actually help kids learn to read. Since 1999, registered therapy dogs have been visiting schools, libraries, and other facilities as Reading Education Assistance Dogs® or R.E.A.D.® Program participants. Founded by Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, Utah, the R.E.A.D. program is dedicated to improving the literacy skills of children of all ages by providing them an opportunity to read aloud to a dog in a setting that is supportive and nonjudgmental. After all, the presence of dogs helps lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety – and dogs never correct your pronunciation.
In a pilot study conducted at a Utah elementary school in 2000-2001, children in grades 2 through 6 significantly improved their reading scores. In addition, teachers reported that the participants experienced decreased absenteeism, improved self confidence and self esteem, a sense of pride in their accomplishments, increased participation in field trips, clubs, and other extracurricular activities, improved hygiene, kinder and more respectful interactions with animals, better grades, and increased use of the school’s library. R.E.A.D. program volunteers work throughout the U.S. and in parts of Canada. The program is open to registered therapy dogs and other therapy animals.
WDJ contributor CJ Puotinen and her Labrador Retriever, Chloe, are members of the Hudson Valley Humane Society Visiting Pet Program, which is a R.E.A.D. Program affiliate. They live in New York.