WATCH | B.B. isn't just a therapy dog, but also a Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.) who snuggles and listens while you read him a book. His best qualities as a helper? Calming presence, attentiveness and the big, brown nonjudgmental eyes.
B.B. and his handler, Jeff Stier, make a weekly visit to the New York Public Library to read with children. Parents can sign up their children for 15 minutes of reading with B.B. and Jeff, who are almost always booked to the last minute at the Bloomingdale branch in the Upper West Side. There are currently thousands of registered R.E.A.D. teams across the country who work in public schools and libraries.
R.E.A.D. launched in 1999 under Intermountain Therapy Animals, with the idea that children are more likely to read confidently out loud in the presence of a nonjudgmental audience like a dog than that of peers or teachers.
According to Nancy George-Michalson, the executive director of New York Therapy Animals, the program is geared towards children aged 4 to 8, English as a Second Language (ESL) students and students with learning disabilities. In public schools, the program is facilitated through social workers, teachers, or a healthcare professional, and everything is closely monitored and documented.
And it seems to work. A 2012 piece in <em>Frontiers in Psychology Journal</em> said the presence of a dog "seems to support concentration, attention, motivation and relaxation" in children when learning.
"It's important to see the reading levels, which are collected every two months in schools, going up and to see the children's self-esteem elevated," said George-Michalson, who has two registered therapy animals herself.
"I've gone through special training as has B.B.," said Jeff Stier, who works at National Center for Public Policy Research when he's not volunteering. "But B.B. has a special ability to read people often better than I can."
For NYPL's Bloomingdale Branch Manager Yajaira Mejia, the R.E.A.D. program has been a perfect opportunity to get children to want to read - especially in the age of iPhone games and electronics.
"Usually when kids see the dog, they'll be interested in reading to the dog, and it gets their friends to want to read too." Mejia said. And she was right. While B.B. and Jeff were reading with a child, several children watched from outside the window, waiting for their turns.
"It builds confidence for the canine. I think it's good for the dog to have a job and to have a responsibility. I might have been a skeptic before, but it's real. It helps the dog be a complete dog." said Stier.