Reading Dogs make reading fun! We take specially trained dog into schools to help children learn.
Chubby the Therapy Dog at Ladybird Nursery. Chubby's handler is a qualified psychiatrist
Rosie the Jack Russell at Arcadia School Afterschool Club
Lost the German Shepherd at Safa Community School
Chip the Frenchie at a private one on one session
Xena the Pom at the GEMs Modern School Assembly teaching children how to look after and care for animals
Willow the Retriever delivering a Happiness Session, she worked with the children while the wrote their own story and illustrated it
Sushi the Maltese teaching phonics at Kangaroo Kids Nursery
Specially developed trump cards based on our dogs. These are used for play time and to teach the children about our dogs.
Bhalu the Australian Collie delivering a school assembly
Our specially developed hand out cards to teach children about how to safely interact with dogs
Chubby the therapy dog making friends
Chubby at her weekly after-school club at GEMs Jumeirah Primary School
Hershey the Bassett Hound with some of our younger readers at Willow Nursery
Millie the Pug reading a book about a pug with the children at Kangaroo Kids
Hershey the Bassett Hound with her little learners class
I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Purina BetterwithPets Prize and, based on its description, I am eligible to apply:
Should you be successful, please confirm your availability to attend:
Additional Skype interview(s) during the week of March 16-20th 2020
The Purina BetterwithPets Forum in Paris, on 3-4th of June 2020
Initiative's representative name
Initiative's representative date of birth
Initiative's representative gender
Headquarters location: country
Headquarters location: city
Where are you making a difference?
UAE- Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Website or social media url(s)
What is your current yearly budget for the initiative? If you are an idea stage, what early budget you would need to kick-off and run operations in your first year?
hybrid: a combination of different types of organisations, such as a social enterprise (an organisation that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being)
1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.
Karalynn Thomson set up The Animal Agency in 2015, it was always her intention to add an educational/ community arm to the company. Programmes similar to Reading Dogs have been used in other countries across the world, research has shown that as well as improving reading fluency and literacy they also provide social and emotional benefits to children. In the UAE, children don’t have the same opportunity to interact with dogs and animals as they do in other countries, so they don’t have the chance to experience these benefits. We felt a structured, safe and educational project such as Reading Dogs would give them the perfect opportunity.
2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?
Interacting with trained dogs makes reading sessions fun. Children feel more confident to read aloud as the dog doesn't judge or correct them and they look forward to reading sessions with 'their' dog. Our reading dogs work in English, Arabic and even Portuguese! As well as improving reading fluency and literacy it also teaches them a whole host of social and emotional benefits such as empathy, interaction, learning to take turns etc.
3. Your solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.
We have 29 specially assessed and trained dogs that visit schools, nurseries and private venues in the UAE to work with children. Our dogs come in all breeds, shapes and sizes and all have their own star qualities which allows us to match them to the children's needs. We have dog's that cover mainstream schooling, children with special educational needs, children with disabilities, young children, dogs that cover assemblies and dogs for those that are fearful etc. Ahead of working with a group we visit the school, meet all the teachers and run Q&A sessions for parents so they understand the benefits of the programme. We work towards learning objectives set out by the class teacher and review at the end of each programme to ensure the objectives are met. We've also adapted the programme to ensure it is mindful of all the cultural and religious demographics in the UAE.
4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?
We are the only company offering this programme in the UAE. We launched in Sept 2017 but had to put in a year's worth of planning and feasibility studies to ensure we had the correct license, insurance and written permission from all the relevant educational bodies. No mean feat in a country which is typically classed as not dog friendly. We developed a special training and assessment programme in conjunction with a licensed animal behaviourist, along with a training programme for all our team. We worked with schools to understand the different types of curriculum offered in this country and adapt our programme to each. Based on feedback from the schools we also launched Happiness Dogs in Jan 19, these sessions focus on student wellbeing
5. How does your project harness the pet-human bond to help people develop important social competencies (For example: emotional intelligence, collaboration, empathy, resilience, inclusivity) and overcome serious societal issues (for example: violence, abuse, trauma, isolation, abandonment)?
The children we meet are encouraged to bond with their dog. The same dog visits them each week throughout the programme and the children begin to see it as a friend, often writing to the dog and practising their reading between classes. It's lovely to see how the children look forward to and welcome their dog each week. 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 about the books they're reading. We often find the children want to try and challenge themselves with more difficult books throughout the programme and many children become increasingly motivated to read more at home, especially to their pets. The sessions are also great for team communication as the children learn to listen to each other and take turns. Spending time with dogs has been proven to decrease stress by increasing the levels of 'feel-good' chemicals, this means that the children feel more comfortable and less stressed.
6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?
Since our launch we have delivered 319 sessions, reaching almost 4,000 children of all ages, abilities and nationalities. Every one of these sessions begins with an introduction on how to safely interact and care for dogs before moving into the body of the reading or happiness session. Our aim is to not only to give children the learning practice, social and emotional benefits these sessions offer but to also teach children about responsible pet ownership and safe interaction. In a country that has an extremely high level of animal dumping and cruelty these lessons are as important as the other teachings. In a country where there are a large number of different nationalities and languages spoken we've found the reading sessions are also a great way to encourage children who's first language isn't English to practice their English reading, writing and communication.
7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?
2019 has seen us expand into Abu Dhabi, moving forward we would like to expand into the other Emirates, particularly Al Ain where we have received a number of request from schools here. In January 2020 we're launching a pilot for Animal Assisted Intervention, we've employed a qualified psychologist to deliver these sessions to children with physical, mental and educational disabilities. We also plan to develop a training programme so that schools can train their own dogs to work solely within their school.
8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for different stakeholders?
We feel that Reading Dogs has developed a new product and service which is very much needed in this region, this is evident in the YOY growth experienced, it is also improving local communities by offering an educational services and addressing animal welfare issues in the region. We are still the only company providing this service in the UAE, there is a great opportunity to train others to deliver the programme through franchise opportunities for other Emirates, countries in the GCC or within each school we work with.
9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?
Currently we charge schools for the programme we deliver. We have kept this amount nominal so that it's affordable for schools, it purely allows us to cover our operating costs. This means however, that the programme does not offer much additional revenue for us to reinvest to grow the programme. Ideally, we would like to find a sponsor, grant or Government funding to cover the programme. This would allow us to reduce the cost to schools, therefore increasing the number of children we reach and put more money into developing the programme and the planned initiative as outlined in question 7.
10. Team: what is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?
The programme was set up and developed by MD Karalynn Thomson with the support and assistance of a part time Operational Manager, part time administrator, 2 x freelance dog assessor/ behaviourists, one based in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi and a team of 28 dog handlers. These handlers are the owners of the dogs. They are paid per session they deliver but both they and their dog have to commit to ongoing assessments and training on a quarterly basis.
11. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of this edition of the Purina BetterwithPets Prize?
There are so many schools and children we are yet to reach due to budget limitations, either our own in terms of staffing/ expansion or the schools as they're unable to pay for the sessions. If we win, we would look to develop the programme as detailed above bringing education and social/ emotional benefits to all children in the region. We would also vastly develop the intervention programme for those with learning, mental and physical disabilities. Lastly, we would continue to develop on the aspects of the programme which teach responsible pet ownership and safe interaction which can only help animal welfare in the UAE in years to come.
12. How did you hear about this challenge?