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Dog proves a good listener as youngsters learn to read N.T. Library, Starpoint programs help build reader confidence

On the floor in North Tonawanda Public Library, Sandy, a 2-year-old Labrador-mix therapy dog, cuddled on a large pillow with Austin Tober, a 6-year-old boy.

Sandy listened while Austin read her a book called "Follow the Polar Bears."

As Austin breezed through the pages with one hand, his other hand took long strokes along Sandy's golden fur. In appreciation, Sandy, a tall dog with strong distinct features, turned her head and kissed him.

Austin and other readers like him have been taking advantage of the Read to the Dog Program at North Tonawanda Library. The 3-month-old program is meant to give children more confidence in reading.

Austin doesn't have any problems reading, but his mother, Monica, said it helps to have someone -- or something -- who can give him undivided attention and listen to a story.

The free program runs from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sundays in the library, 505 Meadow Drive. For more information, contact the library at 693-4132.

North Tonawanda resident Rachel Krawczyk, 7, a second-grader at Spruce Elementary School, likes books about dogs and recently read "Pets to the Rescue" to Sandy.

"There's no such thing as a bad dog, there is such a thing as a brave and wonderful dog," Rachel read to her four-legged friend.

Rachel and her mother, Monica, decided to attend the program because Rachel loves dogs and not so secretly wants one.

"She loves dogs, and she loves coming here," Rachel's mother said. "We have a cat, but she wants a dog. We just take advantage of the library and the wonderful programs they have for kids."

Even though Sandy loves to listen to stories, Dennis Ertel and his wife, Linda, originally intended their pet to be a hunting dog.

"We took her to school at Pet-smart, but the teacher said she's not going to be a hunting dog, she's going to be more of a people dog," Dennis Ertel said.

He said Sandy also makes visits to nursing homes and hospitals.

"The kids, they stumble over words, but dogs don't criticize people . . .," Ertel said. "It gives the kids more confidence."

Reading to the dog gives Kaitlyn Marra, 7, time away from her sibling twins, Megan and Michael, who are 4.

"I like it because the dog was fun, and you get some time away from the kids," Kaitlyn said. "I like reading with the dog. I like reading alone, too."

Her mother, Mary, also thinks reading to the dog has been a positive experience for Kaitlyn.

"It's nice, because Sandy just sits there and listens to her and she can get away from her brother and sister. It's quiet time for her," Mary Marra said.

Pupils from Fricano Primary School, in the Starpoint School District, also have been getting quiet time and quality time with their own therapy dog through the CARE program (Canines and Readers Education). The program, which is similar to the Read to Dog program, has been operating for about three years.

"We have a special room here that's set up and a chair and a rug. They sit on the floor with the dog and it's their own private space," Fricano Principal Bonnie Calamita said. "It definitely has been a lot of help to the students, [especially those] who are struggling with reading. They're uncomfortable reading out loud to the class, and by reading to the dog, it's low risk to them. They don't feel the pressure to read perfect."

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