MUNICH - It is shortly past 10 a.m. in a Munich middle school and Tammy is lying on the floor, muzzle tucked between his paws, stomach rising and falling gently as he breathes in and out, apparently asleep. Occasionally, when Salma leafs through the pages of her book, the dog’s eyes blink open then shut again, but there’s not a peep out of him.
"Paul the panda is lazy," Salma reads out loud. Tammy still doesn’t move. "Edward the squirrel takes a little nap in the tree,” she continues. Now Tammy appears to be deeply asleep.
Every Thursday, Salma runs to her school’s library in Munich’s Haidhausen neighborhood to be with Tammy. She throws a cushion as big as a chair on the floor, and reaches for a book. The dog lies nearby. The girl, who was born in Somalia and is 12-years-old, strokes Tammy. Six months ago she struggled with her reading – getting every word out was a mini-victory. Today she reads without hesitation: "Willi the puppy forgot his bone."
Salma has 15 minutes with Tammy, a Golden Retriever with a yellow coat and a white tummy. During this time, she reads to the dog. Whether Tammy is sleeping, dozing, or awake and listening, it's all the same to Salma. Tammy is a reading tutor. So how does that work?
"A dog doesn’t correct you, it just listens," says Kimberly Grobholz, a woman with grey hair and laugh wrinkles around her eyes. She sits near Tammy, stroking the canine’s ears. Grobholz speaks German with a melodious accent that gives away her American origins. She brought the concept to Germany from the U.S., where there are thousands of dogs that listen as children read to them aloud from a book.
Anybody in this Munich school who goes to read to Tammy on Thursdays either is afraid of reading aloud, has reading difficulties, or doesn’t like books. "Being around the dog relaxes and motivates children," Grobholz says. Relating to the animal is crucial. "The kids lose their fear with Tammy."
International comparisons reveal again and again that the reading abilities of German children are only middling. Among 15-year-olds, 18.5% are weak readers. Fear and shame play a role in this. “When reading begins to take on negative associations, having something positive connected with it can make it seem attractive again,” says reading researcher Cordula Artelt, a professor at the University of Bamberg who holds the chair for Empirical Education Research.
Human happiness hormones
For the children at Munich’s Wörthschule school, the positive reinforcement is Tammy the Golden Retriever. This would come as no surprise to animal therapists who have long known that contact with dogs stimulates human happiness hormones.
Ten children are reading today. They come from Somalia, Macedonia, Turkey and Slovakia and also Germany. Some of them have been going to the “Lesehund” (“reading dog”) for years. In English, the terms reading dog, as well as tutor dog, are used.
"In Germany, tutor dogs are still unknown," says pioneer Grobholz, "but they definitely help children." She started her project in 2008 in Munich but there are now similar projects in a number of German cities including Mainz, Augsburg, Weiden in der Oberpfalz and Bremen. Grobholz sits near the reading kids and very occasionally helps them out, "but not too much, that’s the deal," she says.
The children come to read to Tammy because their teacher has sent them there. "Children who go regularly to read to the tutor dog also read better in class," says German teacher Margreth Außerlechner. Children with reading difficulties usually fall behind in their schoolwork – and then because they are laughed at by the other children, their lack of confidence about reading only gets worse. But with Tammy the children feel more confident. "And they participate more in class, too," says the teacher, scratching Tammy on the ear.
Grobholz would like to set up reading with tutor dogs all over Germany. Before she started taking Tammy to schools, which she does for free, she used to take Tammy to retirement homes on a volunteer basis. Everywhere she took the dog she saw how positively people reacted to it. The dog requires no training, but must be "stress-resistant, calm, and like children."
Tammy is kept on a leash while the children read. In between reading sessions the dog gets a dog treat to eat. However until the gong announces that an hour has passed, the dog remains lying down and doesn’t bark a single time – as usual. It just listens. Or at least that’s the impression he gives.