Children read aloud stories to their furry friend during a Reading Dogs session at Gems Modern Academy in Dubai on Wednesday. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: A new programme, launched in Dubai last September, is encouraging the culture of books among children through reading to dogs.

Eight Dubai schools have signed up for the ‘Reading Dogs’ programme, with the aim of raising the confidence of children who might otherwise be nervous when reading out loud.

“There are a number of emotional and social benefits of reading to a dog rather than out loud to classmates or a teacher. Studies have shown that many children feel reading aloud becomes less difficult because the children do not feel they are being judged if they mispronounce a word,” Louise Dawe, operations director, Reading Dogs UAE, told Gulf News.

She pointed out that studies have also shown that reading fluency has increased up to 30 per cent in children after participating in reading dogs programmes.

Trained dogs of all breeds and sizes have been carefully selected to go in to schools to be ‘read to’ by children in small, supervised groups.

“We have a maximum of 12 children per reading dog session and one dog. The sessions are 20 minutes long, so keeping the groups to this size allows time for all the children to read,” said Dawe.

All dogs have passed a full assessment with the dog trainer in order to qualify as a reading dog, and are accompanied by their owners in all the sessions, with other staff members from the Reading Dogs team also present at the sessions.

The programme was launched by Karalynn Thomson, founder of The Animal Agency, the UAE’s only professional animal talent agency.

Thomson, who had owned dogs all her life, was inspired to start the scheme after hearing about the success of similar programmes in the USA and the UK.

When 2016 was named the UAE Year of Reading, Thomson felt it was the ideal time to begin the process of setting up her own educational programme, and has since partnered up with Careem and Dawe to make Reading Dogs a reality.

“We are so excited to bring Reading Dogs to the UAE after having learnt so much about the positive effects dogs can have on children practising their reading. Not only do the dogs help children relax, they also help them try that little bit harder, and most importantly, have fun,” said Thomson.

The 20-minute Reading Dogs sessions, which can be booked as a one-off or as a course, take place in a quiet area such as a private room, library or hall in groups of six to ten children, depending on their age and ability.

Each child gets the chance to read to the dog from a book chosen with the help of the class teacher. The kids’ furry, four-legged reading aide is introduced at the start of the session, and the children receive guidance and a handout to help them understand how to interact with the dogs. They are also given Reading Dogs Top Trump-style playing cards, to allow them to continue to learn and play once the session is over.

“As a lifelong animal lover, I have always been aware of the social benefits of being around animals, and now their educational benefits are also being recognised in a tangible improvement in reading skills,” said Thomson.

All dogs are rigorously evaluated by Reading Dog UAE’s dog trainer and assessor, Denise Vertigen, who studied Canine Psychology and Behaviour at Esher College in the UK, and has more than 20 years’ experience working with animals.

“Every one of the four-legged-friends signed up for Reading Dogs is fully assessed by myself and given a suitability certificate, and clean bill of health before interacting with the children. Our Reading Dogs are chosen for their temperament and of course their ability to listen to commands,” she said.

The animals were chosen from The Animal Agency’s existing book of pet ‘icons’. Children can expect to read out loud to Lost the German Shepherd, Xena the Pomeranian, Luna the Pomsky or even Karalynn’s own pet, Remy the Wheaten Terrier, among others.

“We have a gorgeous mixed range of dogs signed up — from chunky British bulldogs to tiny cuddly terriers — all ready and waiting to share a book with their new friends,” said Vertigen.

Dubai schools currently taking part in the programme include Safa British School Dubai, Dubai British School, GEMS Modern, GEMS Wellington and Safa Community School.