Tales with Big T helps young Madison readers

A playful Pomeranian listens to children read

Dogs normally aren’t allowed inside community centers.

But don’t tell that to Big T.

After greeting a swarm of children rushing to meet him at the door, the little black dog excitedly prances into a side room at the Meadowood Neighborhood Center on Raymond Road. With his tongue out and a wide smile across his furry face, he paces around waiting for the children. When a couple of fourth-graders enter the room, the 6-pound senior rescue dog is ready to work.

His job is simple: Big T is here to listen to children read. Throughout the afternoon, pairs of students come in, grab a book and read out loud as the 11-year-old dog lies next to them or, more often, sits on their laps or curls up in their arms.Tales with Big T helps young Madison readers

As the namesake of the Tales with Big T literacy program, the purebred Pomeranian provides “comfort, confidence and love” to the kids who read to him, says his owner Lisha Terre. “He’s a certified service dog, so I can bring him into schools and community centers, but he acts more like a therapy dog.”

Therapy dogs like Big T go with their volunteer owners into settings like hospitals, nursing homes and schools, helping those with a variety of conditions and others who simply want the attention and affection that only a dog’s wagging tail can provide. Therapy dogs have grown in popularity over recent years because of their demonstrated ability to brighten the moods of those they visit.

That’s certainly the case with Big T. “He just loves the children, he loves listening to them read,” says Terre. “And they love him.”Tales with Big T helps young Madison readers

Big T – whose real name is Tchotchke, which is Yiddish for “tiny treasure” – and another dog, GoGo, a 9-year-old corgi doodle mix, are wrapping up their second school year in the program. In addition to the Meadowood center, they regularly visit other community centers, schools and special events. In summer, as part of their Picnic and Pages program, Terre and her dogs stop by local parks with books and healthy snacks.

A health care professional by day, Terre got the idea for the program after reading a Tufts University study that said “kids who are struggling to read are more likely to read aloud to a dog than to an adult because the dog is not going to judge them,” she explains. “The dog is just there to listen.”

She was also driven to create the program after learning from the 2013 Race to Equity report that more than 80 percent of black third-grade students in Dane County are not reading at proficient levels. “That’s not acceptable, so I felt I needed to do something,” says Terre.Tales with Big T helps young Madison readers

With those kids in mind, all the books in Terre’s permanent collection feature characters of color. “The kids see that there’s a black doctor or a veterinarian who’s Latino. I want them to be empowered,” she says. “Reading about characters who look like them is important.”

Students respond well to the K-9 audience. “There will be a girl with ADHD who has trouble sitting still who comes in and reads three books in a row to Big T,” says Terre.

“Kids who usually refuse to read [with adults] now request to read to Big T,” adds Meadowood assistant director Molly Horton.Tales with Big T helps young Madison readers

Everyone involved sees how the program benefits the kids. “At the library, they’re more distracted [but the dogs] really motivate them to read,” says Meadowood staff member Erika Deubig, adding that time with the dogs is a reward. “They have to behave to get to read to the dogs.”

For students like Analiyah Vicente, a fourth-grader at Orchard Ridge Elementary, time with Big T is really adding up. The 10-year-old estimates that the two have read “at least 50 books” together over the past year. “He’s so cute and fluffy,” she says. “He comes right up to you. He’s just an amazing dog.”

Steven Potter is a Madison-based freelance reporter.