How Dogs In Germany Are Helping Children Learn To Read

Take your time, sound it out...W-o-o....WOOF!
Take your time, sound it out...W-o-o....WOOF!
Hannes Vollmuth

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!