Children are improving their reading skills by up to 30 per cent with the help of specially-trained four-legged friends, discovers Karen Pasquali Jones
Turning the pages of her book, Lily reads clearly, stopping every now and again to show her rapt audience the colourful pictures accompanying the words. They listen intently, cocking their head to one side as the eight-year-old finishes Where The Wild Things Are. As she closes the book, Lily, smiles and asks: ‘Did you like that?’
She doesn’t get a reply but she didn’t expect one for Remy – who has been lapping up the classic story by Maurice Sendak for the last 15 minutes – is a Wheaten terrier from Reading Dogs. He is just one of a kennel of specially-trained dogs helping children to improve their reading in schools across the UAE.
And it’s not a barking mad idea – research shows children’s reading skills can increase by a staggering 30 per cent thanks to these four-legged helpers.
‘We are so excited to bring Reading Dogs to the UAE after having learned so much about the positive effects dogs can have on children practicing their reading,’ says Karalynn Thomson, who started the scheme after hearing how successful they were in the US and UK. ‘Not only do the dogs help children relax, they also help them try that little bit harder, and most importantly, have fun.’
‘Studies show that reading fluency has increased up to 30 per cent in children after participating in these programmes. This can be attributed to an increased enthusiasm for books after developing a more positive association with reading thanks to the dogs.
‘Many children feel reading aloud becomes less difficult because they do not feel they are being judged if they mispronounce a word. There are also many studies which show spending time in general with a dog can be good for mental and physical health, because it increases oxytocin – the happy hormone.’
Karalynn and business partner Louise Dawe take their 12 Reading Dogs – including Wasabi the white Maltese, Lost, a rescued Alsatian, Xena the Pomeranian, Pluto the Pug and Luna the Pomsky – to a number of schools across Dubai. After running a successful pilot scheme in Safa British School Dubai, more schools, such as Dubai British School, GEMS Modern, GEMS Wellington and Safa Community School, have signed up for the innovative educational project.
The scheme works with Denise Vertigen, a professional dog trainer who has studied Canine Psychology and Behaviour and has more than 20 years’ experience working with animals. She assesses the animals’ behaviour and temperament before they are approved to become Reading Dogs.
Once approved, the dogs go into schools, accompanied by their owners, for 20-minute sessions with groups of six to 10 children who bring in their own books to read aloud. ‘Our Reading Dogs are all chosen for their cool, calm temperaments, so they are very happy to sit quietly with the children and enjoy being read to – and being cuddled and petted,’ says Louise.
Reading skills are often associated with improved academic performance and positive attitudes about school and so the dogs’ role is an important one. Research has shown that children who enjoy reading to dogs will become more confident and motivated.
They will read more at home, tackle harder books and more readily answer comprehension questions. Researchers at Tufts University, Massachusetts, US, found that second-grade students who took part in an after school programme to read to dogs had an improved attitude to reading. The academics already have funding for further research into the impact reading dogs have on children aged 7 – 11 who are struggling to read and need remedial literacy instruction.
But it’s not all about academia – there are emotional benefits to reading to dogs too. Petting canines can help motor skills, and is proven to lower blood pressure and anxiety. Children learn to be patient, taking it in turns to read aloud to the dog, and how to be kind and empathetic being part of a group who can all enjoy the dog’s company.
‘I have attended most of the Reading Dogs sessions,’ says Louise, ‘and the children are all delighted when their fluffy reading partners arrive. Confidence in literacy is so important, and I feel quite proud that Reading Dogs is doing its bit to help young people develop this invaluable skill – something that will really set them up for life. We can’t wait to come into more schools and help children fall in love with reading – and dogs!’
She and Karalynn hope to eventually roll out the scheme across the UAE. ‘Ultimately, we hope that one day there will be a Reading Dog scheme in every school,’ Louise says.
To find out more about the paid-for sessions visit Reading Dogs.