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| 20 September, 2017

Dogs help children read better in Dubai school

Image used for illustrative purposes. Cody, a Shizu from Cleamont, Florida, sits in the benching area before competition at the 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City, U.S. February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSYHQ4

Image used for illustrative purposes. Cody, a Shizu from Cleamont, Florida, sits in the benching area before competition at the 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City, U.S. February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSYHQ4

Mike Segar - RTSYHQ4
Reading aloud in class can be a daunting prospect. Will I stutter? Will I make a mistake? These are just some of the questions students with an aversion to public speaking ask themselves. But for the first time in the UAE, man's best friend is lending an ear at story time to help students overcome that fear.

The saying goes: "never work with children or animals", but in this case, the coupling could prove to be quite the pairing.

On Sunday, two friendly dogs will be taking up residence in a classroom at Safa British School to aid students during a 20-minute pilot reading session called 'Reading Dogs UAE'.

Sitting at the front of the classroom, students will read aloud to these furry stand-in teachers; and the whole ethos behind the unique initiative is to help build student confidence.

Though the children may believe what they are doing is teaching the dog to listen, they are actually inadvertently teaching themselves, with no pressure, no prodding, and no embarrassment.

"With this scheme, the student believes they are reading only to the dog; a dog that won't judge and a dog that won't correct him/her," Karalynn Thomson, founder of Reading Dogs UAE, told Khaleej Times.

University-based research studies have shown that one of children's biggest fears in class is that they don't read well. But by presenting a student with an audience member that doesn't judge, will ultimately help give them confidence.

"It's like a kind of role reversal. By not being interrupted and corrected if mistakes are made, it gives the student power; like they are the teachers. It also urges them to self-correct too."

Using one dog per group of four to 12 students maximum (depending on the age group), the main aim behind introducing dogs into the classroom setting is to improve reading fluency.

But the animal-friendly reading sessions also promote a whole host of social and emotional benefits too.

"Children will likely bond with the dog, build a connection, and that in turn will give them an incentive to behave," Thomson said.

Working on the initiative for more than nine months, Thomson said after consulting the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) about the idea, they advised that it would be up to each individual as to whether they wanted to take the reading sessions forward on their campus - all provided the right licensing and insurance was in place.

And to date, Reading Dogs UAE has got the support of Safa British School (where the dogs have actually been training), as well as keen interest from several schools from the Taaleem and Gems organisations.

Between September 25 and October 9, the pilot scheme will use two dogs to deliver four reading sessions a week at Safa British School. The process will then be reviewed and amendments made if necessary.

The long-term goal is to roll the initiative out across tens of schools across the city - with 14 already showing an interest in the scheme.

How dogs are trained?

Dogs who are part of the 'Reading Dogs UAE' initiative undergo intense training and behaviourist sessions. A trainer interviews the dog's owner to find out the nature of the animal; they look at how they interact with other dogs; as well as how they adapt to a noisy environment - like a school campus.

Most common mistakes:

Of the dogs that do not pass the initial training phase, not sitting still for long periods of time, and not responding to basic commands are usually what contributes to this.

Dogs in schools - things to take into account:

Communicate clearly with parents We are providing the school with handouts for parents, which highlight study findings that prove the benefits of the initiative. The school will also have to inform all parents of the dogs' visit.

Where will the dogs go to the toilet? - We have to visit each campus beforehand and look at the logistics. We need to make sure there are exits nearby in case of a toilet break. Our dogs are very well trained though, so it is unlikely accidents will happen.

Finding the right insurance We now have full insurance with AXA. This has never been done before in Dubai so it took quite some time to find the right insurance scheme to fit our needs. All dogs have to pass training and assessment processes with a qualified trainer and each dog has to have its own vaccination book.

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