Words to soothe a savage beast: how reading affects traumatized dogs

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Eli, the In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot.
In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot Eli catching up on the latest news. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

A few weeks back, I mentioned that my cat, Eli, is extremely sensitive. And in that regard, nothing’s changed.

But I did learn something interesting the other day. Or more accurately an article in The New York Times confirmed something I’ve always suspected: animals might not understand everything we say, but they definitely understand our tone of voice.

I guess that’s why volunteers read to dogs at the ASPCA in New York City.

“As long as you read in a nice soothing voice, they enjoy it,” Hildy Benick, 69, a volunteer who has been with the reading program since shortly after it started, told the Times.

Victoria Wells is the senior manager of behavior and training at the ASPCA. She started the reading program in 2013, and says it is a great way to help dogs that have to relearn how to trust people.

“You know within each session the progress that they’re making,” she told the Times.  “In the beginning of the session, the dog might be in the back of their kennel cowering, and then they move forward, lie down, relax; their tail might wag.”

Meanwhile, across the country, volunteers are reading to dogs and cats at the Arizona Animal Welfare League and SPCA.

Like their counterparts in New York City, the animals awaiting adoption in Phoenix are good listeners. And apparently they’re not too picky about which reading material their human pals share. If you think about it, that’s saying a lot, considering some of the college kids that volunteer at the shelter often read from their text books, according to Whitney Fletcher, Director of Volunteers & Special Events at AAWL & SPCA.

“As you read out loud, you are focusing on something other than the animal,” she says. “In turn, the animal grows accustomed to your presence and voice, which is calming. Dogs and cats find the rhythmic sound of a voice very comforting and soothing.”

If it works with shelter animals, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work with our dogs and cats, too. So the next time you curl up with a good book, try reading to your pet and see what happens. He (or she) just might enjoy it.

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