STRATFORD, Conn. — Drago may only be 10 years old, but he’s already teaching children to read.
Which is even more surprising when you consider…he’s a dog.
Every other week, Drago and Siena, 13, a pair of pure-bred Spinone Italianos, drop by the Stratford Public Library with their owner, Lauren Friedman, to listen as children practice their reading in a no-judgment zone.
Unlike teachers and well-meaning parents, the trained therapy dogs are content to simply listen as children — some of whom are learning English, too — practice sounding out new words and trying their hand at public speaking.
“If a child is struggling with reading, people are always correcting them, so they’re more self-conscious,” said Friedman. “Dogs don’t do that. They don’t care.”
As if to prove her point, Siena flopped down on her side as 7-year-old Megan Corcoran told her all about "Henry and Mudge" and their latest adventures, turning the book to show Siena the illustrations.
“I like dogs,” said Megan, who’s been coming to the Stratford program, associated with Therapy Dogs International, for a few years. “Sometimes they turn their heads.”
Her mom, Andrea, said she appreciates the effect the program has had on Megan and her little brother, 4-year-old James, who shows picture books to the dogs.
“Megan loves to be able to read to someone,” she said. “It’s a real confidence builder.”
The library has had a therapy dog reading program for at least 10 years, said Children’s Librarian Martha Simpson.
“A lot of children have anxiety about reading,” she said. “And the dogs are very, very laid back.”
That may be due to experience. Drago and Siena are frequent visitors to assisted living facilities, the Veterans Hospital, nursing homes and schools, Friedman said. Drago received an ACE award from the American Kennel Club for his therapy work in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, she said.
Friedman volunteers her time and the dogs seem to enjoy the 15-minute, one-on-one sessions with each child.
“It’s a good thing to do, it makes people happy and it helps children,” she said.
The Reading to Therapy Dogs program has no set age range and is free and open to the public. Contact the library at 203-385-4165 or email@example.com to learn more or to schedule a session.