One by one, kids filed into the community room at Central Community Library on a recent Monday afternoon.
Clutching picture books and chapter books, the young readers plopped down on a pillow on one side of the room and eagerly began reading aloud.
Their enthusiasm might have had something to do with their audience.
The kids, ranging in age from 6 to 10, were there for the “Reading with Ritz” program and Ritz, a 7-year-old golden retriever and a Therapy Dogs International-certified therapy dog, was the guest of honor.
Peggy Dobbins, Ritz’s handler, has been bringing her to the library reading program for about six years.
“Since goldens are such kid dogs, it’s a good fit for her,” Dobbins said.
Ritz seemed at home in the library community room, gingerly trotting up to each new person who entered the room, sitting in front of them and waiting to be petted, sometimes offering her paw. She appeared to smile as kids and adults petted her long fur and scratched her ears.
Some of the kids, like 8-year-old Connor Moler, could hardly wait for their turn to read.
“I want to pet Ritz,” he said as he watched his cousins, 8-year-old Olivia Moler, and 10-year-old Alex Moler, take their turns reading to the dog. “I’m a dog person.”
When it was Connor’s turn he held his book in front of Ritz’s face before he began.
“Ok, Ritz, we’re going to read now,” he said.
Ritz is part of Therapy Dogs International’s Tail Waggin’ Tutors program, one of many therapy dog programs volunteers with the group participate in.
According to promotional materials, the goal is “to provide a relaxed and ‘dog-friendly’ atmosphere, which allows students to practice the skill of reading.”
Tail Waggin’ Tutor dogs often work with students who have difficulties reading and who may be self-conscious reading aloud in other situations.
At Central Library, all children aged 6 to 12 are welcome to sign up to Read with Ritz, who stops by the library for about an hour every Monday in July.
During the school year, Ritz’s job is to work with students at Signal Hill Elementary School, where he visits special education and other classrooms about twice a week, Dobbins said.
Dobbins has owned therapy dogs for decades and has worked with many dogs throughout the years.
She got her start with therapy dogs in the 1970s, when she used to take a dog to visit residents of retirement and nursing homes in the area. There was no formal therapy dog certification program at the time, she said, but she and her dog would stop by for informal visits.
“We just went and they liked us to come so we kept going back,” she said.
Eventually, Dobbins joined Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer group that trains, tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers. The group, founded in 1976, had about 24,750 registered dog/handler teams in all 50 states and in Canada in 2012, according to their website.
To be a part of Therapy Dogs International, dogs must be tested and evaluated by a certified TDI evaluator and must be at least 1-year-old. The test evaluates a dog’s temperament and behavior.
In addition to working with kids through the reading program, TDI dogs visit patients in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Some dogs visit schools and libraries; others visit disaster scenes.
For Ritz, who loves children, the reading program was a natural choice, Dobbins said.
She approached the library about the program in 2007 and they agreed to try it out, she said.
“It went so well they keep asking us back,” she said.
For the kids who sign up each week to read to Ritz, the appeal of the program is clear.
“It was real fun,” said 9-year-old Eric Brennan, who curled up close to Ritz as he read from a chapter book. “I got to sit right next to a dog and read.”