"Hi, Orchid — this is Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook," says 12-year-old Matthew Mattliocco, showing off the cover of his book to Orchid, the black Labrador retriever sitting quietly at his feet.
Mattliocco gives the 4½-year-old pooch a pat on the head before diving into his first sentence of the day.
"Chapter 1: No Good Reason. My name is Junie B. Jones. The B stands for Beatrice. Except I don't like Beatrice. I just like B and that's all," a smiling Mattliocco reads from Barbara Park's book.
Mattliocco, whose curly locks match the auburn hair of the blue-eyed Junie on his book, is a regular participant of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Read With a Dog! program, unfolding every Monday at the Falls of the Schuylkill branch and on select dates at other library branches. The program invites those of all ages to come out and practice their reading skills in front of a friendly dog.
"The goal is to give anyone that wants to read a place to do so without judgment, in a comfortable area," says Meredith McGovern, children's librarian at the Falls of the Schuylkill branch. "The dog doesn't care if you mess up some words, or if it takes you awhile to complete a sentence, or if you have to skip over a word. A lot of times, the only person around besides the reader is the dog's owner, who also isn't there to judge."
For Mattliocco, a cheery seventh grader with a zest for humorous books, it's an activity he looks forward to every week, traveling all the way from South Philadelphia with his dad to the East Falls library branch. Orchid not only makes reading more fun for Mattliocco, but also helps to put him at ease.
"Matthew has autism, which causes him to get anxious, but the dogs always really calm him," says his dad, John Mattliocco. "He's extremely smart, so for him, the dogs are really just therapeutic — they give him a break from the uneasiness he experiences."
While the program primarily attracts school-age kids from 6 to 11 years old, the program is open to anyone. Those who wish to participate need simply to sign up upon arrival at the library and pick out a book. Each reader is given about 15 minutes to read.
"Sometimes kids will say they don't want to read, but when the dogs show up, they instantly want to pick out a book," says McGovern. "It gets them excited and gives them time to build their confidence so that when they go back to the classroom, they eventually feel more comfortable reading in a social setting."
Tyler Hollingsworth, a fourth grader at the Thomas Mifflin School, located just across the street from the Falls of the Schuylkill, likes Orchid because she's far more attentive than her own dog at home.
"My dog would've just jumped off my bed and ran away by now," says Hollingsworth of her 7-year-old Chihuahua, King. "Orchid's gentle — it's more comfortable than reading out loud at school."
Before turning each page from Mo Willems' Let's Go for a Drive, Hollingsworth makes sure to let Orchid first see the colorful illustrations paired with each sentence.
"Piggie! I have a great idea! Let's go for a drive!" she reads, as Orchid slowly turns onto her back.
Orchid is one of the quietest "kids" in the library, a patient listener, adding distraction only when affectionately rolling over to receive another belly rub midsentence from the reader beside her.
She and another furry friend, a little brown rescue mutt named Wally, alternate appearances every Monday at the library. Both are certified therapy dogs, with owners who say their pets naturally love kids.
"I really wanted her to be able to do something that she liked and in the community to help people," says Orchid's owner, Zoe Murphy, who is still a student herself, currently a 10th grade homeschooler living in Philadelphia's Wissahickon neighborhood. "She's my best friend, and I'm so happy to be able to share her with the world."
Orchid has been a part of the program for a year, so she knows the drill. Upon walking into the library, she'll often immediately go straight to her reading rug and flop down on her back, awaiting the first kid to give her a belly rub. During reading time, sometimes she'll appear so interested in a story that she'll actually rest her chin on the book's pages, intently watching the child in front of her.