Dogs are all ears as kids practice reading in Philly libraries

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Mia Zelmanoff reads a book to Rocky at the Torresdale library in Northeast Philly.

Mia Zelmanoff reads a book to Rocky at the Torresdale library in Northeast Philly. (Kyrie Greenberg for WHYY)

Over the past year, therapy dogs have started visiting area libraries to hear young children practice reading. The dogs have become so popular that librarians across Philadelphia are inviting them to their branches.

A chocolate lab named Rocky and his handler, Connie Mumper, took part in story time at the Torresdale branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia for the first time Wednesday night. They were riding the wave of popularity of the program in about 10 other branches across the city.

Stacey Zelmanoff said she first started taking her daughter Mia to “read-to-a dog” events at libraries outside the city. Mia is in preschool, “so she can’t read yet,” Zelmanoff said. “But she loved those dogs, so that’s why we’re here.”

Studies show that reading to animals calms beginners and improves confidence in children who are reading aloud.

The dogs are also great mascots.

“Adding [a dog] into the element makes the idea of practicing reading sound fun to them,” said Molly VandenHeuvel, a children’s librarian at the Andorra library in Northwest Philadelphia.

Charlie, the Dalmatian, began visiting her branch a year ago. And, these days, he’s a celebrity.

“I’m forever fielding questions ‘When is Charlie going to get here? What day is Charlie coming?’,” said VandenHeuvel.

Charlie usually works one on one with younger kids as part of the city’s initiative to have all children reading by the time they reach fourth grade.

“Not only do kids need to build their literacy skills, but, many times, they’ll be called on in school to read out loud — and that can be terrifying for a child that is not an extrovert,” VandenHeuvel said.

Rocky and Charlie aren’t on the payroll, though. These good boys and their handlers are volunteers.

The Free Library is expecting more branches to start hosting dogs, crediting organizations such as Therapy Dog International and PAWS for People for getting the ball rolling.

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