For kids learning to read, sharing a story with a therapy dog can be a real joy

Dora the yellow Labrador retriever might be the best-read dog in town. 

The nine-year-old therapy dog has happily fallen asleep to over 300 stories read to her by children in elementary schools and libraries as a certified Tail Waggin’ Tutor with Therapy Dogs International. 

Dora is fearless in her professional story-listening, lightly snoring through big vocabulary words or mispronunciations. The only thing she is afraid of is going down the Mattituck-Laurel Library stairs. 

Mattituck-Laurel Library offers time for children to practice their reading and speech skills to a TDI therapy dog in the library’s conference room about once every two months. Kids can sign up to read a story of their choice to one of the many TDI therapy dogs the library has hosted for the past 10 years. 

Open to kids of all ages, the Tail Waggin’ Tutor program gives kids a safe, nonjudgmental space to practice reading aloud to a furry friend. 

“We don’t put any age limits,” said Karen Letteriello, director of the children’s programs at the library. “You can be 4 years old and come read with the dog because it’s all about the comfort level of reading.”

‘Dora listens to stories from anyone, from those that can read or those that can’t.’

Karen Maier

Karen Maier, Dora’s owner and handler, said the only time Dora will perk up during a story is when the reader pauses or stops at a word they don’t know, almost as if she’s asking, ‘What did you stop for?’ 

“Dora listens to stories from anyone, from those that can read or those that can’t,” Ms. Maier said. “The little ones can look at picture books and just tell a story, it doesn’t matter.”

However, both Ms. Maier and Ms. Letteriello noticed that recently kids are reading better than ever, especially compared to before the pandemic. Ms. Maier said she is “blown away” every time she comes.

Monika Harkin, a 7-year-old in the second grade, is no exception. She confidently read two books to Dora last Thursday, “Uni the Unicorn,” and “What you need to know about dogs,” a book she wrote and illustrated by herself.

“I was thinking maybe if I have to read to a library, I could show some information about what I have or some pets that I have,” Monika said about the inspiration for her book. 

Monika has three dogs of her own at home, in addition to two cats, multiple chickens, a lizard, snake and chameleon. As a home-schooled student, she loves to read the Cam Jensen and Amelia Bedelia book series, but her favorite subjects are math and science. 

Thursday was the first time Monika and her mother, also Monika Harkin, attended the Tail Waggin’ Tutor program. Inspired after her visit, Monika said that she was going to try reading to her dogs at home. 

Not only does Tail Waggin’ Tutors provide kids with the opportunity to comfortably practice their reading skills, it also gives them a chance to socialize with dogs if they don’t have the opportunity at home.

To become a Tail Waggin’ Tutor by TDI standards, dogs must complete 100 visits at either schools or libraries where they are read to by children. In order to complete this, they first must pass the TDI therapy dog certification test. 

Aside from bringing Dora and her two other therapy dogs to visit at schools, libraries, nursing and veteran homes, Ms. Maier administers the TDI test for other dogs to be certified as a therapy animal. 

Monika shares an interest in working with animals when she grows up as well and hopes to become a veterinarian. “If it doesn’t work out being a vet, then I’m gonna be a pizza maker,” she said. 

Unsurprisingly, Dora didn’t object to either of her plans.