Animal-lover Karalynn Thomson is the founder of a lovely initiative which sees a number of the UAE’s most well-natured four-legged companions visiting children in schools to help boost their reading. Back in 2015, long term expat Karalynn Thomson launched The Animal Agency – a corporation which manages animal talent, providing animal actors and models to the UAE’s film and media industry. In September 2017, she started Reading Dogs – a project which sees lovely dogs being taken to school to help encourage children to read. We caught up with Karalynn Thomson to ask her why dogs can help children read and the way schools within the UAE are responding.
1. How did you come up with the idea of Reading Dogs?
It was always our intention to launch an academic project which might promote the advantages of interacting with animals. Programmes like Reading Dogs are extremely popular in other countries across the world and research has shown that, as well as improving reading fluency and literacy, they also provide an entire host of social and emotional benefits to children.
In the UAE, children often don’t have the same opportunity to interact with dogs and animals as they do in other countries, so they don’t always get the chance to experience these benefits. We felt a structured, safe and academic project like Reading Dogs would offer them the perfect opportunity.
Now, we are the only licensed, insured and KHDA-approved provider of dogs for schools within the region. We’ve a team of 22 reading dogs in Dubai and we have very recently launched in Abu Dhabi with a team of six dogs. We’ve conducted almost 500 sessions thus far across over 50 schools, educational centres, nurseries, primary, secondary and even universities.
2. Why do dogs help kids to read?
Research shows that the dogs bring a fun element to the reading session making it more enjoyable for youngsters –especially for those that find reading difficult. It gives them confidence because the dog doesn’t judge, or correct them and it places them in a position of leadership. They feel like a teacher when they’re reading to the dog.
Many of the children find reading out loud a little daunting at first and then, throughout the programme, grow more confident. They also become more confident answering questions on the books they’re reading. We frequently find that the children want to try and challenge themselves with harder books over the course of the programme and lots of children also become increasingly motivated to read more at home, especially to their pets. Also, the sessions are also great for team communication as the children learn to listen to each other and take turns.
3. Is this the case with all dogs?
We have dogs of all breeds, shapes, sizes and ages within our programme, but it does take a really special dog to become a reading dog. The dog must have a calm temperament, be comfortable in new environments and situations and be comfortable and happy being approached and stroked by children.
The dogs must be a minimum of two years of age to enter our Reading Dogs programme and must know all basic commands (such as sit, stay and lie down), and be comfortable lying or sitting still without getting up frequently. They shouldn’t bark or be reactive to sudden movements, noises or touch.
Additionally, all of our dogs and handlers need to undergo a stringent training and assessment programme before they can become a part of the Reading Dogs programme.
4. Are there any other animals that would have this positive calming impact on children?
Definitely! Dogs are the easiest animals to work with as they’re easily trained, easily accessible and well-suited to this type of work. We do, however, offer reading sessions with a number of the different animals that we have registered with the Animal Agency. We can even tailor the animal to the book, or theme, the class is working on. For National Day each year we take our falcons into schools in place of our dog team.
Read more: '5 Ways to encourage a love of reading in your child'
5. What service do your reading dogs provide?
Class reading sessions in schools and nurseries, one-on-one reading sessions in schools and nurseries, afterschool clubs, assemblies in schools and nurseries and private reading sessions in children’s home environment.
Earlier this year we launched Happiness Dogs. Happiness sessions are 30 minutes in length and take different formats, dictated by the school and the needs of the class, or an individual child. This can be anything from a class companion dog, to singing with dogs, exam time stress relief, wellbeing sessions, or working specifically with Special Educational Needs (SEN) children.
From January 2020, we will be offering Animal Intervention Sessions. Animal assisted intervention is a goal-directed therapy in which an animal is an integral part of the treatment process. For example, teaching commands to a dog can create opportunities to build the social skills of a child with autism.
AAI works well with children with autism, ADHD, PDD and any emotional and behavioural issues. Our AAI sessions will be led by our licensed mental health professional, Zahra, and her trained therapy dog, Chubby. Alongside her regular clinical practice, Zahra is a certified Animal Assisted Therapist and she has experience working with children with emotional and behavioural issues and autism. Chubby is a trained therapy dog and has experience working with children with autism, people and children of determination and those who have a fear of dogs.
6. Can people arrange home visits or visits to their schools?
We do offer home visits within Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We can also reach out to schools if they’re not already registered with us. We just ask for the parents to put us in touch with their class teacher.
7. What other ways can animals help people?
Spending time with dogs has been proven to decrease stress by increasing the levels of ‘feel-good’ chemicals, specifically serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, in the brain. Interacting with dogs also lowers blood pressure and cortisol.
Read more: 'Why reading to your kid might be the most important thing you do today'
8. You must have had some heart-warming moments. Are there any that stand out specifically?
We had one little girl who was not only a shy, nervous reader but was also scared of dogs. During the first session, she would barely enter the room and needed to be at the back of the class close to the door. Over the eight weeks of the programme, she grew more confident as she became used to ‘her’ dog. By the end, she was always the first to put her hand up to read and would practice in between sessions so she could show the dog how much she’d improved the next week.
Her mum sent us a lovely letter after the programme, along with a picture of her on holiday in Europe saying that her confidence had come on in leaps and bounds during the and that the little girl now actively looked out for dogs to interact with. Because of what she’d learnt during the programme, she knew how to safely interact with dogs and how to approach them. The picture showed her playing on the beach with a dog she’d made friends with. After two or three sessions, we start to notice that the students often pick books that either have dogs in them, or are specifically about the breed of the reading dog. Our handler Perry had one session where a child chose to read a story about a basset hound, the same breed and look as Hershey her dog. It’s so sweet to see different ways of how the children try to grow closer to the reading dogs.
For more information on the Reading Dogs programme,
WHAT THE TEACHERS SAY ABOUT READING DOGS
"I would like to say a big ‘Thank You’ to you, the dogs and all the volunteers who gave us a lasting experience with the Reading Dogs Programme. It was indeed a great initiative to get our little ones to read by raising their confidence – not just in English but in Arabic too. It was thrilling to see all the positive effects dogs have on children reading. The feedback we’ve received was gratifying and encouraging. Thanks once again for all the support and the great initiative.−Tanya Fernandez, GEMS New Millennium School"
"This is a new extra-curricular activity for us and one that has already become so popular! We cannot wait to book more sessions in the future. It is a wonderful experience for our students and the staff look forward to the dogs visiting each week too! Our expectation was just the hope that the children would enjoy it and that it would be a nice activity for them to do in the afternoons. It actually exceeded our expectations because we found that children who participated in the program made great progress in their reading.”− Scarlett Christley, GEMS Jumeirah Primary School."
Edited by: Surabhi Sudarsan