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Champ is relaxed, lying comfortably on a dog-day afternoon.

While his snout is flat on the carpet in the children?s room of the Central Santa Rosa Library, his brown eyes are open, patiently regarding Logan Newton as she reads a passage from ?The Quicksand Question,? by Ron Roy. The Santa Rosa fourth-grader picked out this chapter just for Champ, figuring he would like it.

She was right.

When she reads the words ?doggie treats? and shows him an illustration, the golden Lab suddenly perks up and sniffs at the page.

Man?s best friend has been pressed into service helping the disabled, soothing frail seniors, nosing out bombs, acting as guards, leading the blind, finding missing people, sniffing out cancer cells, herding sheep, retrieving game and assisting firefighters.

Now, animal trainers and educators are increasingly enlisting canines for the unlikely challenge of helping kids read.

Santa Rosa?s central library this month started teaming up with the Sonoma County Humane Society to entice kids to come by on select afternoons and sign up to ?Read to a Dog? from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Trained therapy dogs more accustomed to going into nursing homes and senior centers are being put on literary alert, serving as patient ears for young readers who otherwise would be too shy or self-conscious to read out loud to an adult, parent or peer.

Similar programs with other canine helper organizations like Paws for Healing and the Assistance Dog Institute can be found at the Rincon Valley, Windsor, Rohnert Park and Petaluma library branches. The Sonoma Valley Regional Library started playing host to a reading dog on Monday afternoons earlier this summer.

More than just a cute gimmick to lure kids into the stacks, the concept, which has been slowly gaining converts across the country, has some sound educational principles behind it, experts say.

?The Read to a Dog programs are very serious about helping children to learn to read, or read better,? said Kim Endoso, a children?s librarian in downtown Santa Rosa. ?Some children may feel self-conscious reading in class or reading to their teacher or reading to their parents. But they feel comfortable reading to a dog. The dog doesn?t criticize.?

While kids have undoubtedly read to their pets for generations, it was the non-profit Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City that created one of the first formalized programs using therapy dogs a decade ago. The Reading Education Assistance Dogs program holds workshops and has provided training packets to some 5,000 schools, libraries and community programs.

Kids who have experienced the feeling of failure around reading now can be ?the tutor? when reading to a dog, said Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Animals.

Dogs also are comforting and put children in a relaxed state, making reading more pleasurable, said Martin Smith of the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Extension. A specialist in program development and research into K-12 educational programs in and around veterinary science, Smith recently completed a study of the phenomenon for Tony La Russa?s Animal Rescue Foundation. The Walnut Creek-based non-profit has joined with Target stores and the Nestle Purina Petcare Co. to create an All Ears Reading Program, which similarly enlists dogs as listeners.

Kathy D?Errico, who regularly has had reading dogs in her third-grade class at Park Side Elementary School in Sebastopol, said it?s another welcome tool to get kids to practice their reading.

?In teaching, you?re constantly trying to get kids excited and wanting to do things. To accomplish your educational goals you try to give them new experiences, not the same old hum-drum thing,? she said.

Unlike dogs trained to assist the disabled, there are no particular breeds that seem to be better at listening, said Joanne Yates of Paws for Healing, a canine therapy organization in Sonoma, Napa, Solano and Marin counties. The non-profit fleet of therapy dogs sends trained and vetted volunteer dog/human teams out to the Rincon Valley and Windsor libraries as well as the Sonoma Valley Boys and Girls Club and some schools.

?All we want are people-loving dogs,? said Yates. ?We train them and see if their personality and their temperament match either doing work in hospitals or doing work in schools.?

Yvonne Morones, a pet-assisted therapy team volunteer for the Humane Society, started the library programs with Paws For Healing in several library branches as well as schools in Sebastopol Union School District. She said her Chihuahuas know where their classrooms are and they know right where to go when they?re on library detail.

?The dogs will hop in the child?s lap and wait for them to open the book. There?s no having to ask them twice,? she said.

Reading dogs have to pass a ?Good Citizen? test to make sure they can follow commands, handle basic obedience and act appropriately in a variety of public situations, said Beth Karzes, humane educator for the Humane Society and SPCA of Sonoma County.

Some handlers like to tuck treats into the book to keep their dogs? eyes trained on the page. But Diane Hales, a Humane Society volunteer, said after several years of bringing her Chumley to libraries in Ohio, where she used to live, she concluded that kids don?t care if the dog appears to be snoozing.

Bronagh Dempsy, 10, and her little sister Ciara, 7, both students at St. Rose School, declared the experience fun after reading to Chumley, who rolled on his side to catch some late afternoon shut-eye.

?I think people should read to dogs because dogs should be treated the same as humans. They?re almost like humans,? Bronagh said, convinced the part-Beagle enjoyed hearing her read to him from ?Benny Bakes a Cake.?

?Dogs can hear you,? she said. ?They have ears. They have feelings and go through tough times, just like you and me.?

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at 521-5204 and meg.mcConahey@pressdemocrat.com.