Meet Benny, Chaz, Gunther and Harvey, volunteer reading specialists. They have no academic degrees or lesson plans, no pencils or paper, yet parents of struggling young readers praise their skill and return month after month for another round of their special brand of magic.
Their secret? Just being themselves: cute and canine.
These four-legged masters of patience and understanding belong to a cadre of dogs and their humans that visit libraries in Jefferson and Orleans parishes a couple of times a month to help improve the reading skills of youngsters. Called “Reading to Rover,” the program uses children’s natural affinity for dogs to create the kind of laid-back atmosphere that some children need to build confidence in reading aloud.
“The dogs are good listeners,” said Daniel Gitlin, an information specialist at the Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library, where Reader to Rover is held every third Tuesday of the month. “They are 100 percent non-judgmental.”
Rye Kelly, 9, is a regular. Her favorite reading companion is Chaz, a golden-haired Katrina survivor, whose specialty is standing motionless for long stretches of time. Helen Hester, his human, calls him an “old man,” but Rye says she likes him because “he’s cute.”
Rye’s mother, Rachel Kelly, has been taking Rye to the Jefferson regional library to read to Chaz since she started to read. Because she’s in a Spanish immersion program at school, Rye needs practice reading aloud in English. “I think it’s helped,” Kelly said.
Another regular, Reina Garay Cruz, 8, read “It’s a Home Run, Charlie Brown” one Tuesday in March to Harvey, a mop-haired, terrier mix with floppy eyebrows. Harvey, adopted from a shelter in the town of Harvey, had just graduated training. He’s just a youngster himself, but he too, listened, panted and sat on his rump, not making a sound.
Reina says she enjoyed reading to him because he was “gentle and kind.” Chaz was busy, so Rye read “Big and Little Dog,” to Harvey, which he liked very much, she said.
Benny “Loverboy,” a boxer with basset hound eyes, played the clown, rolling on his back while listening. At one point, he lay tummy down, legs splayed around him and chin on the book in front of him. He seemed bored, but those soulful eyes could melt ice at 20 below zero.
Benny’s comedy act helps Rowan Meyer, 6, overcome shyness so he can read aloud. “He’s struggling a little bit,” said mother Courtney Miller, “so this is perfect.”
Gunther, a black and brown dachshund, listened to several books while snuggling against his human, Bruce Galbraith. Even though Gunther has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, he gave his attention to Emma Mesman, 6, another regular whose reading skills have improved.
“You can see the difference,” said Peggy Mesman, Emma’s grandmother. “She has more confidence. Now she reads in front of everyone. That’s the goal.”
Benny, Chaz, Gunther and Harvey are only four of the 140 dogs that have been trained to serve in the Visiting Pet Program, says Lee Gaffney, program president. These dogs, chosen for their calm and friendly personalities, provide many therapy services, including visiting the sick and elderly in hospitals and nursing homes.
“Even airports are asking for service dogs during holidays,” Galbraith says. “We’ve been getting more and more calls.” •