Scores of children in uniform are rushing to their classrooms. It’s another busy school morning at the Gems Modern Academy, Dubai. But today keeping pace with them are a pair of four-legged visitors. Hershey, a chocolate brown Basset Hound and Wasabi, a tiny white Maltese, grab the children’s attention as their owners escort them for a very special class. In collaboration with Reading Dogs, UAE, the animals are to be part of an unusual reading session that helps children relax and become confident readers.

In the junior wing of the school, 12 first graders eagerly awaited the arrival of their fluffy guest. While Wasabi was taken to the middle school section, Hershey’s owner Perry El-Ashmawi escorted her to this sunlit reading room. The children broke into an excited chatter as Perry took her place on a chair and Hershey cuddled up next to her on the floor. For the next 20 minutes, the children took turns to sit next to Hershey and read aloud from vividly illustrated story books.

Six-year-old Aarav Abhinay reads the tale of The Dinosaur Who Lost his Roar by Russell Punter with confident ease. ‘Earlier, I could not read aloud all the words. But while reading to Hershey I seem to get better with them,’ admits the bespectacled Aarav.

Another issue he has got over is his fear of canines. A bit scared of dogs earlier, he says not without a little pride that he has managed to resolve that as well.

Gui Palanque with Wasabi, a Maltese, and Perry El-Ashmawi with Hershey, a Bassett hound
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Aarav’s classmate Leisha Arora too has discovered a renewed interest in storybooks thanks to Hershey becoming part of their reading lessons.

An animal-assisted activity, Reading Dogs encourages students to become confident readers by reading aloud to pet dogs.

The initiative launched by Karalynn Thomson two years ago today has 19 reading dogs that work with over 24 schools, nurseries and at private venues in Dubai. ‘Research has shown that reading with dogs improves children’s reading fluency by up to 30 per cent. It also offers them a whole host of social and emotional benefits. The dogs help children to relax and they overcome their nervousness while reading aloud. It is also an extremely enjoyable experience for the children to be with the pets,’ says Karalynn, managing director of Reading Dogs and The Animal Agency in UAE.

Her team works closely with each school to ensure that the reading session is also educational and matches the reading level of the class. At the end of each session children get to interact with the dog and its owner.

Research has shown that reading with dogs improves children’s reading fluency by up to 30 per cent
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Teachers at GEMS Modern Academy are all praise for the unique programme that, they say, has immensely benefitted their students. ‘The interesting fact is that children are a lot more confident reading to a dog [because] it does not stop them or correct them when they falter [like a human would]. This improves their confidence. But in reality they are actually unknowingly reading aloud in front of their peers overcoming their inhibitions in the process,’ explains Elizabeth John, educational supervisor at Gems Modern Academy. The school joined the Reading Dogs project in 2017.

Historically, humans and animals have shared a special relationship that dates back as far as the cave man era. From an early age animals are an integral part of a child’s surroundings. They are their constant companions in the form of cartoons, toys, home décor and books. Studies and research prove that being around animals has therapeutic benefits for children.

‘Multiple research studies have shown that interacting with animals helps reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase levels of oxytocin (commonly known as the love hormone). A positive neurobiological change occurs in the brain as the child interacts with animals, making him or her relaxed and open to learning,’ points out Zahra Poonawala, a Dubai-based mental health professional, who specialises in animal assisted therapy.

While Reading Dogs is helping kids to become better readers and boost their confidence, another Dubai-based institution is tapping into the power of horses to build muscular and emotional strength in special needs children. Equestrian Association For People of Determination (EAPD), Dubai, has been using equine therapy to assist children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s Syndrome, spina bifida and other learning disabilities.

Therapeutic riding is a form of holistic therapy that provides physical and emotional benefits
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At the EAPD’s lush green lawns in Desert Palm, around 70 children attend the hour-long weekly therapy classes in batches. Therapeutic riding is a form of holistic therapy that provides young riders in the age group of four to 18 years with several mental, physical and emotional benefits.

‘The children learn balance, co-ordination and self-assurance while receiving therapeutic muscle stimulation. The aim is to improve poise, posture, strength and flexibility,’ says Caroline Joyce Seemar, manager at EAPD.

Eight-year-old Evelyn Kurth has been riding at EAPD for about two years. A grade three student of Safa Community School, Dubai, Evelyn has right-side hemiplegic cerebral palsy that makes her muscles stiff and weak. According to her mother Helen, Evelyn’s weekly hour-long lessons from October to April at EAPD have helped her both physically and emotionally.

‘For one she loves coming here as the green surroundings are a welcome change from the clinical therapies she has to do routinely. Besides, we have seen an increase in her core strength and balance. The fact that she can ride a big animal — a horse — has also tremendously boosted her confidence,’ explains Helen.

The young riders are assisted by a horse leader and two side-walkers
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Even as we speak, Evelyn, dressed in a pink T-shirt and blue cap, mounts her horse, Charlie Brown, with quiet aplomb. Claire Moutrie, an instructor certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), guides the horse into a fenced lawn surrounded by tall palm trees. Assisted by a horse leader and two side-walkers Evelyn rides along the lawns for her therapy lessons.

Today’s class is based on a Halloween theme and there are a few paper cutouts of ghosts, a spider web and mummies positioned on various areas of the lawn.

‘We start our lessons with warm up exercises to relax the rider followed by the activity. As part of the Halloween theme today we hope to build their memory. The riders have to count the items (ghosts and mummies) they see while riding and remember the sequence and numbers in the end,’ describes Claire.

A girl of few words, Evelyn seems to come alive as she throws a plastic letter cube to the lawn and then goes on to memorise the number of witches and ghosts around her.

Physically, horse riding helps children with muscular disorders. Riding helps stretch and loosen their muscles. Their core strength improves as they learn to keep an upright position on the horse. The movement of the horse mimics the movement of walking, and gives the rider who maybe wheelchair bound, a sensation of what it feels like to walk. Each lesson and horse is chosen according to the specific needs of the child.

‘Autistic children, for instance, love to move and we often give these kids the naturally fast moving horses. This keeps them motivated during lessons,’ explains Claire.

Both reading to a dog, considered an animal-assisted activity (AAA), and equine therapy, an animal-assisted therapy (AAT), provide children with innumerable psychological and social benefits. ‘The presence of animals enhances the feelings of safety and promotes a non-judgmental environment. In the case of Reading Dogs, the child feels the dog is not going to correct or get upset for reading incorrectly. Animals are also literal in their communication — the dog will wag its tail to show its happiness,’ says Zahra.

Gui Palanque with Wasabi, a Maltese, and students of the programme
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This positive interaction gets children interested in reading and they are eager to come to a library — they feel there’s a dog there waiting for them.

At the end of each reading session the children get to pet and play with the dog. The physical comfort the children derive from touching the dog calms them and de-stresses them. They also feel like a leader or a teacher while reading to the dog and this encourages their interaction among their peers.

Similarly riding motivates the children in many ways. Exercising and riding in the fresh air is an enjoyable experience and lifts their self-esteem as they master a skill normally performed by able-bodied people. It is also an opportunity for them to meet new people and make friends. ‘Several psychological changes have been noticed in children post their riding lessons including improved social and emotional intelligence, better communication skills, patience, emotional control and self-discipline,’ says Caroline.

Over time the therapies have brought out some startling changes in children. Caroline recounts the case of eight-year old boy Cullum, who was non-verbal. ‘After joining the EAPD programme he started talking. ‘Going to ride Cigar [the horse]’ were the first words he spoke from the back of his car. His mother was crying with happiness as she had not heard his voice in eight years,’ she says.

The animal therapy welcomes participants as young four
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In another incident, a young Russian girl who had recently moved from her home country to the UAE found it easier to adjust to her new school environment after an AAT with a therapy dog. ‘This young girl had a tough time adjusting to the school environment in Dubai. She barely spoke and had already changed four nurseries. But at AAT sessions with a therapy dog she would be delighted and would ask many questions about the dog,’ says Zahra.

Besides dogs and horses several other animals are also part of therapy. Guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks, fishes; as well as large animals such as goats, cows and even llamas function in therapeutic zoos or farms across the globe. Research reveals that watching fishes in a fish tank helps children with hyperactivity to slow down and have better attention spans.

‘Petting a cat brings a sense of relaxation. This improves a person’s well-being and speeds up their recovery. Children and adults fulfill the need to nurture and feel nurtured when they care for a rabbit,’ adds Zahra.

‘To honour UAE’s National Day we offered reading sessions with UAE’s national bird — the falcon. The sessions followed the same format as a regular reading dogs’ session and allowed children to learn about falcons and their rich heritage in the region,’ says Karalynn, of Reading Dogs.