Photos: ‘Reading’ dog helps kids heal in Dubai hospital

Dubai - A therapy animal is a great exemplar of nonpharmacological interventions that can help ICU patients become active.

by Dhanusha Gokulan

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sun 22 Aug 2021, 9:51 PM

Last updated: Mon 23 Aug 2021, 10:35 AM

Mickey, a two-year-old Beagle, scripted history on Sunday by becoming the first dog to ‘read to’ outpatient therapy patients at the Al Jalila Children’s Speciality Hospital.

Mickey, accompanied by his trainer Michele Dunn, delighted at least 12 children - aged two and above - by engaging them in a fun interaction and reading activity. After Dunn read out from two books, they interacted with Mickey by petting and playing with him. All participating kids were undergoing some form of behavioural or occupational therapy at the hospital.

The one-of-a-kind animal-assisted therapy was organised by Reading Dogs, a programme of UAE-based Animal Agency. “Reading Dogs provides canine reading companions to help children relax into reading and confidence building,” said Karalynn Thomson, founder of the Animal Agency and Reading Dogs.

3-month pilot programme

“The programme will be piloted over three months and will see children being treated at Al Jalila benefit from human-animal interaction therapy sessions with specially trained dogs,” pointed out Dr Mohamed Al Awadhi, chief operating officer at Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital.

Jukha Al Marzooqi, an expert in clinical services at Al Jalila, told Khaleej Times: “We realised this activity matches with the theme of our hospital. Today, there are very few houses in the UAE that do not have a pet.” The hospital also recently invited a Dubai Safari team to organise similar interactions with animals’ activities for kids.

“The hall we organised the event in is fitted with cameras. All our inpatients were able to see it from their rooms,” said Marzooqi.

According to the Johns Hopkins University rehabilitation and ICU experts, a therapy animal is a great exemplar of nonpharmacological interventions that can help ICU patients become active and engaged in their recovery as early as possible.

The programme launched by Al Jalila builds on growing evidence that animal therapy has been proven to decrease stress and depression by increasing the levels of feel-good chemicals, specifically serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine - in the brain.

Emotional benefits

Cathy Paul-Fijten, a parent to two daughters – Milou and Filipa – attended the session with her older daughter Filipa. Originally from the Netherlands, Cathy has been a Dubai resident for 15 years. Her daughter Filipa suffers from a rare complex disease - ZC4H2 and has been using the emotional and physical support from the family’s therapy dog Charlie, a labrador.

“He (Charlie) is an incredible companion to my daughter. He is an incredible motivator. He provides her with psychological support, assists her while she goes swimming, and his presence has had a great impact on her recovery and therapy,” said Cathy.

There are no legislations for service and therapy dogs in the UAE, and parents like Cathy are hoping pilot programmes like these will change that. “I see this event as a start for something incredible for families such as ours. It would be great if hospitals regulate the option to keep service and therapy dogs as long as the dogs are trained, and there is a hygienic process behind it,” Cathy explained.

Thomson also said dog reading programmes have been top-rated in schools where Reading Dogs visits. “In the four years since our launch, we have been working on getting to this point. During term time, we go to schools and nurseries almost every day. We have 18 dogs here in Dubai and four in Abu Dhabi.” Reading Dogs works with dogs and trainers who are committed to the programme.

“Since Covid-19 pandemic, we have been organising sessions over Zoom for kids and have a few private sessions as well,” she added.

Apart from reading, the dogs also partake in singing, arts and crafts, and painting sessions with children. “For the next session at Al Jalila, we will have another dog in attendance,” she said.

Dhanusha Gokulan
Dhanusha Gokulan

More news from