On a recent Tuesday evening at Jefferson Parish's East Bank Regional Library, a young girl with blonde braids slowly read aloud from a colorful children's book. A sinewy Rhodesian ridgeback named Jolly curled up next to her, listening to her voice, while the dog's owner whispered words of encouragement.
This cozy scene is common during Reading to Rover (www.visitingpetprogram.org) — a literacy program where children practice reading aloud to therapy dogs. The free events take place once a month at the East Bank Regional Library and the Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center in Orleans.
Amber McTee discovered Reading to Rover last September and has been attending the monthly gatherings with her 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son ever since. Her children often pick their books ahead of time, so they can practice reading.
McTee says they find the evenings "fun and different" and "better than reading at home every night." But the dogs are the main attraction.
"By now they know all of their names," she says, noting that a few canines even wear costumes. At a December session, Jolly donned a crimson, velvety Santa Claus suit embellished with shiny jingle bells.
"They get excited to go back and see all of the dogs that they remember," McTee says. She adds that her daughter is already a strong reader but her son is not quite as interested in books yet, but they love the library events.
"It's a change of scenery and change of pace," she says. "This gives them something to look forward to. It's relaxing."
Reading to Rover was launched by the Visiting Pet Program — the only animal-assisted activity and therapy program in New Orleans, which has more than 100 volunteer handlers. The volunteers and their trained pets visit hospitals, nursing homes, libraries and stressed teenagers who are studying for college entry exams.
Fay Schultz, the coordinator of Reading to Rover, joined the program nearly 13 years ago. She recently was seen at Ochsner Health System's main campus on Jefferson Highway, pushing her dog — a small black-and-white shih tsu — in a stroller.
"(Reading to Rover) is a good program, because we don't judge," Schultz says. "If the child makes a mistake, he makes a mistake. If he asks us a word, we'll tell him. There's no judgment. The dog just sits and listens."
The group size varies but can include up to 30 readers. Most young bookworms are less than 10 years old. After the child reads a few short books aloud, the canine gets a treat. The librarian hands each participant a dog bone-shaped bookmark that bears the line: "I have read to (the name of the dog)."
Schultz notices how the young students' reading skills increase over time, along with their enthusiasm for books.
"I see the joy in children's faces," she says. "I'll look at a child and say, 'Oh, you started out as a baby and now you're in first grade reading.'"
But Schultz believes that it's fun for the dogs as well, who cherish the affection and the chance to model festive canine fashions.