UPPER WEST SIDE — Molly and Leo, both 10, are pretty attentive listeners — but they'll also lick your hand mid-sentence and lose all focus if you mention treats.
The pair of Havanese dogs, who enjoy romping in Riverside Park, are volunteers in a literacy program for shy elementary school students who need a non-judgmental audience as they practice reading aloud.
The pooches — who have been part of the JCC Manhattan's Gift of Literacy program at P.S. 163 for the past seven years, are the perfect listeners for second-graders who "are afraid of other kids giggling" and worried about getting teased when they read in class, said program director Judy Gross.
But sitting one-on-one with Molly or Leo, "they have total freedom. They can really relax," Gross added. Their blood pressure goes down and they feel calmer about something that's really challenging for them, Gross explained.
The docile dogs have spent an hour every Wednesday afternoon from October to May listening to the second-graders — who are selected by their teachers because they need extra help with their reading and writing skills.
When the students are confident and have the drive to read, they start to make progress, Gross said.
The after-school session also makes students "feel special," and "feel like stars," because the 15 students get to do something their classmates don't — reading and hanging out with friendly pooches.
"They look forward to it," Gross said.
Suiden Valdez said she once tried to pick up her daughter Robyn King, 7, from the afterschool program early, but couldn't tear her away.
"It's wonderful to see her so excited," Valdez said.
Robyn's enthusiasm has translated into her reading more often, her mother added.
"She does want to read to me. She's more open to it... and she wants to try harder," the mom added.
Karol, a second-grader who read to Leo, also started reading to her three dogs at home, she said.
"I like reading to dogs. I like giving them treats," Karol said. "They're really kind to me."
Jayne Pilner, who calls her dog Molly "the Mayor of 76th Street," said she's watched "kids who barely could read before now say, 'Oh boy, I get to read to Molly.'"
For Leo's owner, Susan Lewin, the literacy program is a chance for her to volunteer without leaving her dog behind.
The pet component is part of a larger program for the second-graders that includes a meal after school, instruction by Gross and one-on-one time with tutors from the JCC. The program lasts until 5:30 p.m., but reading to the dogs is a real highlight during a long day, Gross said.
Being with the dogs "is a nice treat. It's a reward," she added.
Interested volunteer tutors can email her at email@example.com.