Worried about your child’s reading skills?
Don’t worry, Annie the Reading Dog is here to help!
Does reading out loud stress your little one out? Or are you concerned about how much your kiddos is understanding what they’re reading? These are all pretty normal questions to ask especially with school underway. We’ve heard a lot about therapy dogs who visit hospitals and seniors home to brighten and liven up their days. But did you know that therapy pups like Annie the Reading Dog, can also help with a child’s learning?
Educator and teacher, Katie Larson, through the adoption of her adorable dog Annie, created a wonderful reading program that allows kids to comfortably grow in their reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension skills all while reading to Annie. She has also witnessed not only academic improvement with her students, but a growing level of compassion, emotional intelligence and empathy as a result of spending time with Annie! We chat with Katie as she shares more about her revolutionary program and how it’s helping many children develop a love for reading!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to Hong Kong.
I had an exciting journey getting to Hong Kong! After several years of working as a high school science teacher and graduate school instructor in Chicago, my husband and I decided to sell everything and move to Barcelona in 2011. After living and working in Spain, South Africa, and Singapore, we worked and backpacked our way through South East Asia before landing in Hong Kong as tourists in 2013. My husband fell in love with the city instantly and shortly after he was offered a job here… we’ve been here ever since!
What inspired you to get into teaching?
I am a born-educator who has listened to my calling and adapted my roles as necessary! I began my career teaching high school biology and physical science in Chicago, but my passion for educating could never be contained to just one age group, content area, or country. Through various programs and projects I have since worked all over the world with English language learners, indigenous peoples, teachers-in-training, graduate students, disabled adults, young women, and international volunteers.
Through these diverse roles I have come to recognise that the aspect that I am most passionate about as an educator is transformation, and thus have just finished my PhD in Transformative Learning. Transformation is the thread that runs through all of my recent creations as well. It has manifested itself in Annie the Reading Dog, my children’s book Freckles Felt Fine, the workshops of Transform U, and hopefully the business I will launch next year: KoruQuests.
Each of these focuses on how we can take conscious choices toward our own growth and transformation—whether it is through easing our stress of reading with a dog, understanding our emotions, or discovering our personal learning journey. I really believe learning should be fun! It is definitely possible to playfully stir up our natural wonderment for the world as we learn and grow. I tend to bring this passion and joy to whatever I pursue, and thus only choose things that align with my calling.
Tell us more about Annie the Reading Dog and how did Annie come into your life?
Shortly after moving to Hong Kong, I decided to volunteer with the SPCA. An avid animal lover, I had planned on only fostering animals that were rescued from deplorable living conditions to prepare them to be adopted by another owner. However, after bringing Annie home and discovering how loving she was, it was impossible to give her back!
Annie was found living in a cage in a non-air conditioned flat near Mong Kok with another 100 dogs and 35 cats. She was part of breeding operation that supplied puppies to the nearby pet shops. She and the other dogs that were rescued were severely malnourished and had serious health problems. She had already had numerous litters of puppies and could have been living in those poor conditions for up to 6 years! Once we rescued her, she was very confused about what it meant to be a “normal” dog and could not run, jump, play, or even lay down properly.
It took me many months to train Annie to just “be a dog”, and much of that was spent in Hong Kong’s country parks and natural areas. She learned to run at Aberdeen Country Park, she learned to climb by hiking The Peak, and she learned to jump down the stairs at Pui O’s beach in Lantau. During all the training I noticed that Annie loved small children and cuddling people of all ages.
This led us to get her tested and certified by Animals Asia Foundation to become a therapy dog for their Dr. Dog and Professor Paws programs.
After watching Annie’s caring nature in action, I realised her calm and soothing presence would be beneficial for students who may be under the stress of learning to read. As an educator, I am particularly sensitive to some of the formats to Hong Kong’s after-school learning programs that may cause more harm than good and I wanted to bring a unique opportunity for holistic approaches to this space.
I created “Annie the Reading Dog” as a safe, comforting space for children to read. Literacy is the foundation for all learning, so why not build a child’s foundation in a playful, tactile way? Students will have pleasant associations with reading when they can pet and engage a dog (who is also great listener!) as they learn. What could be better for courage and confidence than reading in a homemade blanket-fort with a dog by your side?
How has reading with Annie helped your students?
Because of the structure I offer, I had predicted that students would improve their reading skills, but I did not predict how regularly engaging with a dog would influence the development of compassion and emotional intelligence in my students.
I have had several parents comment that in addition to improved reading fluency, accuracy, and comprehension they notice a distinct difference in their children’s ability to care for others. One parent even exclaimed that their child’s interest in her baby brother peaked after sessions with Annie!
I think it is because children must anticipate what Annie’s needs are during the sessions, and that allows for the development of empathy for another being, which later translates to everyone from siblings, grandparents, and other pets. I can definitely see transformations in my clients and I am proud of the students that prove to their parents they can handle a pet of their own after several sessions with Annie.
Students can improve their readings skills significantly with regular practice with Annie and I. It is common for our students to move several levels as they work with us. I have many regular clients who base their after-school schedules around their time with Annie!
What is one of funniest moments you’ve had with Annie during your sessions?
One of the funniest moments was when Annie personally chose one of her first clients! I had taken Annie to Cheung Sha beach on Lantau and she was following me up and down the beach, but kept running back to a small, blonde boy playing in the sand. I would run after her and find her wagging her tail and licking him!
I apologised to his mother and brought her back to me, but out of all the kids on the beach, she just kept running back to him! After about four or five times of this the mother and I could see that the boy was really fond of Annie (and she was of him!) so we got to talking, I mentioned the website, and soon after he was a client! I honestly believe she “chose” him and each session she saw him, she was simply smitten!
How can people get in touch with you and what do your sessions look like?
I do have a few openings this time of year while also recognising the need to be sensitive to Annie’s energy. I cannot have too many clients per day as I can tell she takes her job quite seriously, and often goes for a nap after a session!
If a potential client is interested, they should visit our website and fill out the contact form. Annie has a lovely attraction to most children, but responds best to those who are both interested in and respectful of her.
Every hour-long session is different, but most will first consist of dog-centred activities like grooming or bathing Annie, making dog treats, or teaching her tricks, then we either play literacy games or make a fort with the couch-cushions and read a book or two to Annie. Last, students fill out their sticker-chart to track their progress. The hour flies by, and most are ended with my clients giving Annie a big hug or kiss as they leave her. I really love that part of my job!
If you’re interested in finding out more about Annie the Reading Dog,
check out www.AnnieTheReadingDog.com