J.R. and Olivia are reading dogs—which is to say, they’re avid, cuddly listeners who adore being read to by children. In addition to being cute, they’re also highly-trained therapy dogs on a mission: helping kids learn to read. A few times a month, these dogs come into Buncombe County libraries and listen as children read stories aloud to them.
“It’s great for the kids because it boosts their self-confidence,” said Paul Monitto, J.R.’s owner. “They’re reading aloud instead of to themselves. It’s sort of like public speaking, but they don’t have twenty people in front of them—they have a dog.”
According to Therapy Dogs International, reading dogs help children learn to love books by encouraging them to build positive associations between reading and spending time with a dog. Dogs make dependable, non-judgmental listeners who won’t laugh if the child makes a mistake. Enjoying a dog’s company can get a child excited—or at least less nervous—about reading a book, and many children talk about reading to their own pet when they go home.
J.R. is a mild-mannered Jack Russell Terrier who loves to curl up with the kids while they read to him. Often, he falls asleep (which, Monitto explains to the children, is a sign of how soothed he is by the reading). J.R. came to Monitto from a foster owner who rescued the dog from euthanasia in Tennessee, and while Monitto initially thought he might bring J.R. to nursing homes or hospitals, he was delighted to learn about Therapy Dogs International’s “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” program. “I enjoy reading, and I enjoy working with children,” he said. Now, J.R. visits North Asheville Library one Friday out of every month and Swannanoa Library every other Saturday.
Olivia is a Labrador and Golden Retriever mix who adores children. Her owner, Jayne Cleveland, thought at first that Olivia might make a good guide dog for the blind, but Olivia was unable to complete the training due to a medical condition. Given the dog’s love of children, Cleveland thought then that Olivia might like to be a therapy dog, but she soon discovered that service dogs and therapy dogs require nearly opposite training. “As a service dog, they’re trained to ignore everybody but their handler,” Cleveland explained, “but therapy dogs have to do exactly the opposite: they have to pay attention to everybody and approach people.”
At first, Olivia struggled to be re-trained as a therapy dog. “There was a moment when she figured out what she was supposed to do,” said Cleveland. “Before, she’d always been supposed to pay attention to me, and then she was supposed to pay attention to the people in the wheelchair, or the hospital bed, and she just lit up.” Now Olivia helps children at Weaverville Library two or three times a month on Tuesdays.
Both Olivia and J.R. put in hours outside the library, too: J.R. visits Asheville Primary School and Asheville Preschool every week, and Olivia makes rounds in Mission Hospital’s outpatient wing and waiting rooms.
Children are encouraged to sign up for a free fifteen-minute slot to read to one of the dogs. To find out when J.R. or Olivia will be visiting next, call the library or visit the events calendar.