Man’s best friends help children learn to read

Like many 3-year-olds, Magic enjoys napping, playing with her sisters and being read to. Unlike her human counterparts, though, Magic is a 190-pound Mastiff that eats 55 pounds of dog food per week and is part of a local therapy dog program.

Though Magic is related to “The Beast” from the movie “The Sandlot,” her docile nature and friendly demeanor make her an ideal listener in the “Reading to Dogs” program at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign, located at 346 N. Neil St.

On the third Sunday of the month, the museum hosts the therapy dogs and their caretakers in a room filled with books about dogs and coloring supplies for children.

Elaine Schmid, the museum’s education coordinator, brought the idea to the facility in October after interning with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The program originated as an event for Youth Literacy Day, but Schmid said the museum has kept it because of its popularity with both the museum’s employees and the children who enjoy reading to the dogs.

“It’s a very comfortable environment for readers who are just beginning to read because they don’t feel judged,” Schmid said.

Magic’s owner and president of the Dog Training Club, Monticello resident Molly McCarter, said she volunteers her time and dogs because it offers children a better opportunity to interact with bigger dogs while also giving them reading practice without facing criticism.

“Kids will come in and read aloud book after book to Magic,” McCarter said. “Dogs really do pull a lot out of people.”

In one instance, McCarter brought Magic to a hospital to visit an unresponsive 16-year-old boy who had suffered severe brain injury. The boy, who had not spoken in three months, yelled for Magic and tried to grab her as the dog was leaving.

“She’s a really special dog,” McCarter said.

McCarter, who owns three other Mastiffs, brings Magic and her sister to libraries, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Both dogs were required to pass classes to become certified therapy dogs and have won numerous awards within the American Kennel Club and the Mastiff Club of America.

“Some kids are very apprehensive at first, but then when they see other kids petting Magic, they’ll usually throw a hand in there,” McCarter said.

Jennifer Showerman brought her two daughters, Anna, 3, and Olivia, 1, to the museum for the first time on Sunday.

“We’ll probably come back next time,” Showerman said. “We came today to sign up for a membership not knowing that this was even going on.”

McCarter said she plans on certifying her youngest dogs, two of Magic’s puppies, when they turn 1 year old. The pups, though only 8 months old, are each 160 pounds and still growing.

“There’s almost 600 pounds of Mastiff in my bed every night,” McCarter said.