This Dog Is Smart, But Please Stop Claiming He Can Read

The pup helps kids out in the classroom, but trainers are skeptical about the reading claims.
Fernie is an educational assistance dog who helps children in a U.K. school.
Fernie is an educational assistance dog who helps children in a U.K. school.

Dogs are wonderful, compassionate and incredibly smart creatures -- but probably can’t read printed English words. 

You might think they could, though, after reading multiple headlines in the British media this week celebrating Fernie, an educational assistance dog who helps out in the classroom at Winford Primary School in the city of Bristol, southwest England.

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The claim is based on the dog’s apparent ability to respond to commands written on flash cards, as demonstrated in this video:

But the claim that Fernie is actually reading seems more than a little far-fetched. Andrea Kilkenny, professional dog trainer and owner of New Jersey pet training company Our Gang Pet Services, said the video provides good clues to what’s really going on. 

“It looks to me like the dog is being cued with subtle body movements,” she told The Huffington Post in an email. “He is not reading the words on the cards. The owner has created very subtle body cues to signal to the dog which behavior to perform. Note, for example, when he holds the ‘down’ cue card, the handler leans slightly forward -- this is the signal the dog is cueing off of. When he holds up the 'Roll Over' cue card up, he leans forward slightly and then leans/nods to his left and the dog rolls over in response.“

Rosie Barclay, a clinical animal behaviorist of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, gave a similar assessment to The Telegraph.

Winford Primary school did not respond to a request for comment from HuffPost about the dog. But even though Fernie might not be perusing War and Peace anytime soon, Kilkenny was impressed with the pup, her trainer, and the way that the pooch's presence helps out kids in the classroom.

“Nice training on the part of the owner, and he's found a way to pair with flash cards for the children's benefit,” she said.

The chocolate lab is part of a national program called Dogs Helping Kids. Responding to the flash cards is only small part of his duties.

“We find he has a very positive effect on children's learning,” Nik Gardner, headmaster and Fernie’s trainer, told the Telegraph. "For example, after he sits with pupils to listen to them read - which the children love, because they don't feel 'judged' - they get to do some training with him and reward him with a treat.”

Fernie is also more than happy to cuddle with kids who might get nervous or anxious during the day.

What a good boy!

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