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Service Dog Helps Children Learn to Read at Mulberry Street Library

 The Nolita library hosts monthly storytime with a 9-year-old Border Collie-greyhound mix to help kids get more comfortable with reading aloud.
Kids Read with Theo the Service Dog
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NOLITA — Benson Lam read an "Encyclopedia Brown" book aloud in a lower-level nook of the Mulberry Street Library Wednesday with the help of an assistant — a Border Collie-greyhound mix who rested his head in the 9-year-old boy's lap as he sounded out the words.

Lam's mom said she takes her son to the library for the unconventional story hour with licensed therapy dog Theo every month because it's making the third-grader at nearby P.S. 130 a stronger reader.

"It gives him confidence and encourages him to correct his own mistakes," said Mei Chen, a 35-year-old teacher's assistant whose family lives in Brooklyn.

For the past five years, the New York Public Library branch on narrow Jersey Street has hosted reading time with Theo and his trainer Kimberly M. Wang, a West Village resident. The story time is part of the NYPL's citywide Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, which launched about 10 years ago, a library spokeswoman said.

Children who become anxious about reading aloud can learn to do so with more ease with the help of therapy dogs, said Wang, a photographer and television production veteran.

"When kids are first learning to read, they can be so self-conscious. When they're reading with a dog they know the dog doesn't judge them," she said.

When young readers who stroked Theo's ears on Wednesday struggled to pronounce certain words, Wang told them to try to sound the words out for the benefit of the dog.

"Theo doesn't know that word. Let's teach it to him," Wang said.

She explained later that having the opportunity to teach "another being" empowers children to be in control of learning.

P.S. 130 first-grader Angelina — who sat down with Theo Wednesday to read "Pantaloon," the story of a pastry-loving poodle — said reading with the dog every month helped expand her vocabulary.

"I like to read with dogs. It helps me know more words," she said.

Angelina's mom, Bella Zhao, said she noticed her daughter seemed more focused on reading when the dog was in her lap.

"When she reads with the dog, she will pay attention," Zhao said.

The mellow 9-year-old rescue dog who has calmed patients in pediatric hospitals and AIDS hospice facilities has become part of the Mulberry Street Library community since he began visiting in January 2008, senior librarian Susie Heimbach said.

"It's so nice for kids to be in a warm, non-judgmental setting when they're learning to read," Heimbach said, noting children bring the dog presents and bound up to him on the street as if they're greeting a long-lost friend.

When Wang adopted Theo from a New Jersey shelter in 2004, he was untrained, hyper and tugged on his leash. Wang had her doubts about the dog, but she saw he made sustained eye contact, a sign he could be trained, she said.

Naming him after Vincent van Gogh's brother, who supported the artist's career, she took Theo home to the Gramercy Park studio apartment where she lived at the time and began to teach him hand signals and take him on regular runs. She knew she wanted to put him to work.

"Most dogs do best when they have a job," Wang said. "Sitting around in city apartments all day long with nothing to do makes for some anxious, bark-y and even aggressive animals."

She said many dogs can be trained to become therapy dogs.

"All they need is love, a stable home and enough exercise and structure," she said, adding that she is currently fostering a 6-month-old coonhound-Plott hound mix she thinks has similar potential to become a therapy dog.

"The great thing about dogs is that they're not judgmental," Wang said. "Their mere presence is so calming."

Families can check the Mulberry Street Library's website or Facebook page to find out when Theo will visit next.