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Program gives young readers a friendly, furry audience

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Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 11:58 pm

HARLINGEN — Morticia Castro calls herself a bookworm.

Though only a third-grader at Bowie Elementary School, Morticia is considered a senior in the Harlingen Public Library’s Paws to Read program. She’s been coming for more than a year to read to dogs.

Her father Derick said her reading has improved since she started the program.

“She didn’t have a lot of trouble reading but this has helped her a lot,” he said, adding, “Anything that can help her with her confidence and education I am all for and I would definitely recommend it to other parents.”

Morticia is reading a new book every couple of days, he said.

It’s difficult to ignore Ocho, a big Irish wolfhound, when he walks into the public library for the weekly Paws to Read program.

Ocho, so named because he was the eighth puppy in his litter, is registered with the Pet Partners program, which trains and screens volunteers and their pets for visiting animal programs in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and other facilities.

Ocho comes to the public library every Wednesday so children can read to him. Most weeks there are two or three therapy dogs attending the program.

Morticia is a familiar face in the program. She gets to the library early and helps the Pet Partner volunteers set up. She even attended Ocho’s “wedding” last May to another Irish wolfhound.

“It was fun,” she said.

Every child who enrolls in the program reads for about eight to 10 minutes with Ocho, who usually lies next to them, listening intently while they read a book of their choice.

Sue Gunnels is a newly registered handler. Her dogs Ozzie and Baby are registered therapy dogs.

While the children read, she sits with them guiding them, holding the book or helping them if they stumble on a word.

“My passion is bringing joy to others and I think the animals are so important in this,” she said.

This week Morticia was reading a book from the “Goosebumps” series.

“The best part is that I feel confident whenever I read to the animals,” she said. “When I come here I don’t feel judged. “

Rio Hondo Elementary School second-grader Lauren Silva is another regular in the program.

Her grandmother Patty Edwards has noticed an improvement in Lauren’s reading skills.

“She’s more proficient, tackling the big words and has moved up to reading chapter books now,” Edwards said.

Lauren said she most likes reading to Ocho.

“He’s my favorite,” she said.

“I think the program is excellent because it matches up the children with these wonderful dogs,” Edwards said. “The dogs make it more exciting for them and they look forward to reading.”

Lauren loves books so much she even reads while she walks.

“I feel happy when I get to read to Ocho. He’s really sweet,” she said.

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