Theo, a 5-year-old border collie-greyhound mix, might just be a young reader's best friend. That's because Theo, like more than 2,300 dogs around the country, has been trained to do what many humans cannot: listen, with seemingly unlimited patience, as his young friends read out loud.
"I like to read stories with him," said 8-year-old Brian Chan, who reads with Theo at a branch of the New York Public Library. "He does look at the story book, and he smiles a lot."
Theo is part of an innovative program the New York Public Library started five years ago called R.E.A.D. with Mudge. R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs, and the program now has about a dozen dog-trainer teams that visit library branches about once a month -- giving kids the chance to choose a book and read it to them.
The New York program is modeled after one that started in Utah in 1999 and has now spread to every state except South Dakota. The idea: Kids would feel less stress reading if they were reading to someone who would never laugh at a mistake or judge them for mispronouncing a word. Therapy dogs were perfect.
"Kids have to practice, practice, practice to be good readers, and yet, when you're practicing, if you make a mistake, it can feel risky or uncomfortable," said Francie Alexander, the chief academic officer at Scholastic. "But if you're practicing with a dog, and the dog is nonjudgmental, you don't mind making the mistake. In fact, you'll probably correct it."
That was the experience of 6-year-old Isabelle Ephron, who read with Theo for the first time last month and was surprised when he gave her a friendly lick.
"He usually licked me when I was stuck on a word," Isabelle said. "I think he wanted to give me encouragement to figure out that word."
Reading dogs such as Theo are trained to encourage young readers with a gentle nudge to keep going, or a paw placed on a page to offer support.
Many of the children are also convinced that the dogs understand the stories they are reading.
"He understanded [the book] and he liked it," said first-grader Ezra Schwartz.
New York's Bideawee pet adoption service runs a unique variation of the program in which dogs are brought to children living in shelters for homeless families. Homeless children sometimes have trouble in school because of the stresses and strains of having been displaced.
"I need a little help with my reading, because I'm sometimes a slow reader," said Linda Ricard, who reads to a 9-year-old shepherd mix named Missy.
Missy's owner, Eric Dennis, says he has seen improvement in the kids who read to her.
"[I've seen] even more improvement than I thought I would, just in the ease and the comfort," Dennis said. "They get new words every week, so they expand every week and get more comfortable every week. There's no doubt."
"My teacher said, 'where do you get your reading skills from?' and I told her, 'I read to a dog,'" said Kassandra Segui, who has been reading to Missy for almost two years.
"I have somebody that listens to me when I read," said Linda. "And if I make a mistake, there's no one around to laugh."