Charlie gazes at his reader, listening to every word as she reads "Cat in the Hat" with great assuredness. Early in the story, Charlie rests his muzzle contentedly on her right hand.
Clad in his yellow vest, a uniform shared by other dogs that have gathered with their handlers that day, Charlie is part of Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation's Pet Hug Pack pet therapy program. On this day, they are participating in the All Ears reading program at the Concord Library.
It is the first time that the readers are a local group of developmentally disabled adults.
"It lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety. They provide an aura of relaxation," says Pat Mills. "People who are otherwise closed down will open up when petting an animal."
Mills oversees ARF's pet therapy program, which has more than 140 teams of dogs or cats and their handlers that also visit hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
At the All Ears reading program, Nora Llewellyn gently pets Naomi, a four-year-old Labrador, who reminds her of a dog she had who died.
"It's like having a conversation. It brings me peace and joy. She lifts my spirits," says Llewellyn, a client with Toolworks, a Concord-based nonprofit that provides vocational training and social services for the developmentally disabled.
All Ears was started in local libraries to connect struggling young readers with a canine to improve literacy in a safe, nurturing setting, offering an unconditional audience that didn't interrupt or judge.
Librarian Gina Worsham first participated in the program a few years ago at the San Ramon branch and was instantly hooked.
Their outreach program had visited a special day class at an elementary school where Worsham witnessed how an autistic child, who was initially noncommunicative, showed significant improvements in speech after spending a few weeks with the same dog.
Extending the program to adults with disabilities just made sense to her.
"There was a positive energy right from the start, to see them engaging with the dogs and their (owners)," Worsham says of their initial meeting. "You're really making a difference in someone's life."
The dogs had to pass muster before achieving the rank of therapy dog, passing a 10-step "good citizens' test," for temperament and behavior, adhering to guidelines from the American Kennel Club.
"What I look for is that they really, really like to interact; they like to be touched," says Mills, noting the need to not be bothered by the occasional tail pulling and unfamiliar circumstances.
The four-legged volunteers make 280 visits to 70 different facilities in Contra Costa County per month.
Strandwood Elementary School in Pleasant Hill is one of a few local campuses that have an All Ears program in place, and its presence is paying off.
Roxanne Gambill, reading specialist at Strandwood, can spot the reluctant readers, and knows that time spent with an attentive canine can turn them around.
"(At first) they look down. They might move their lips, but there's no sound. They might shrink down in their seats," she says. "And then the dogs snuggle up next to (them) reading and you see (the student) relax and get a little louder."
While Gambill has experiential knowledge of improved reading skills, ARF has seen proven results correlated and quantified, partnering with UC Davis in a literacy experiment, pairing youth with a canine companion.
The 10-week study showed a 30 percent increase in fluency, with participants initially expressing feelings of self-consciousness, and then later feeling more relaxed and stating that their reading had improved.
"The kids get so excited. It's an instant love affair with these dogs," says Gambill. "We've seen some significant improvements, and mainly in their confidence levels ... Suddenly the stories they were reading really came alive and they really blossomed."
Developmentally disabled adults are welcome to join the All Ears program from 2-3 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month at the Concord Library. For more information, call 925-676-5445.
For more information about ARF's pet therapy or All Ears programs, visit www.arf.net.