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Therapy dog helps children read aloud
'Tail-wagging' tutor
Ben Pagan, 8, reads aloud from a “Henry and Mudge” book as Nero listens. - photo by Photo by Katie McGurl
If you visit the Richmond Hill Public Library on a Thursday afternoon, you might see a big, docile Doberman and his owner enter the building.

The dog is Nero, a certified therapy dog, and with him is his owner and trainer, Justine Oakwood.

The duo comes to the library from 4-5 p.m. every Thursday to host “Reading to Nero,” a program that helps children with their reading skills.

“The program was designed by Therapy Dogs International to help improve literacy rates,” said Oakwood. “They’ve got it going on in schools and libraries across the country. The children can come to a non-judgmental place and interact with someone who cares for them – and Nero does genuinely care for these children – and feel good about what they’re doing, so if they stumble over a word, nobody’s going to correct them.”

Studies have shown that the program does improve reading skills, as well as self-esteem and willingness to participate in classes across the educational spectrum.

Oakwood sits in the room during reading sessions for safety reasons, but she doesn’t listen. It allows children the privacy to hone their skills and work on their confidence. Nero is the one who listens.

“He really has a good sense of how much they want to interact with him and kind of interacts accordingly,” Oakwood explained. “Children come in and read their books and he just lays there and perks his head up every so often, looks at them.”

The Ohio-born trainer loves to read, but said she struggled terribly with it when she was a child.

“I was just horrified to read out loud in class and terrified that people would laugh at me,” she said.  “But, I would’ve been at the library or begging my mother to come to the library every week if I’d had this sort of program. That’s really why I wanted to do this.”

Brothers Joel Pagan, 10, and Ben Pagan, 8, the former a student at G.W. Carver Elementary and the latter a student at Richmond Hill Elementary, come to read to Nero often.  

“He’s a cool dog,” said Ben.

“I’ve actually gotten into reading now,” Joel said with a smile. Ben agreed wholeheartedly.

The children that come for the sessions sign up in the designated reading room, and they read to Nero one at a time.

“I really, really believe in this program,” said Oakwood. “I really love it, and I just wish more people knew about it.”

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