FREEPORT — It was hard to tell who was enjoying themselves more during therapy dog hour at Freeport Community Library – Elina Santiago or Leo the labradoodle, who gave her at least one doggy kiss during the March 18 reading session.

“The kids absolutely love it, and for some kids it helps get them comfortable enough to read aloud because that can be intimidating for some kids,” circulation clerk Ami Reedy said. “Whenever one of the dogs arrives, you hear the ‘oohs and ahhs’ and it’s wonderful to see the kids open up to the dog.”

The program that brings together children, books and canines was initially held once a month when it started in 2016. But it’s grown in popularity, so the library recently started offering weekly 15-minute sessions Mondays from 4-5 p.m. Reedy said the library is now booking three months in advance; call 865-3307 for an appointment.

The sessions are based on studies that have shown children who are reluctant readers may benefit and develop their literacy skills by reading to dogs. Not only is there an element of fun in visiting a dog in the library, Reedy said, but the dogs also offer a level of comfort that children may not experience with their friends or other adults.

“I really like reading and usually I am reading in the car when my parents are driving me to school or something, so it’s nice to read to the dogs and I love dogs,” said Santiago, who is 8 years old.

Her mother, Monique Guillerm of Freeport, said she enjoys watching her daughter read and values the programs at the library.

“We love libraries and it’s great to have such a variety of programs that are offered,” Guillerm said, “and we absolutely love dogs, so it’s the best of both worlds.”

Sitting down to read with a registered therapy dog and their handler creates a nonjudgmental environment, according to Leo’s handler, Denley Poor-Reynolds, who also lives in Freeport.

“A dog isn’t going to laugh if the child makes a mistake, it just listens, and provides a gentle energy where the child doesn’t feel judged,” Poor-Reynolds said.

She has been bringing Leo to the library since the program began.

“I love seeing the children smile when they read and I enjoy seeing the calming influence Leo has on these children,” Poor-Reynolds said.

Dogs that participate must be registered by a nationally recognized therapy dog organization; Leo is certified by Therapy Dogs International.

Four other dogs participate in the program regularly, including a pair of rescue Lab mixes from the same litter.

“We also have Bert, who is a smaller breed, and he’s hypoallergenic, too, so that is really great for some of the kids that come here,” Reedy said.

She said she recommends the program to parents who are thinking of ways to help their children get comfortable with reading aloud.

“As adults we want to correct children when they’re reading and try to help them that way, but that sometimes stops the flow of the child’s reading,” Reedy said. “Instead, when a dog is around, there is a calm presence where no one will interrupt the child. And that is when the child gets the most comfortable reading.”

Patti McDonald can be reached at 780-9123 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @pmcdonaldme.

Registered therapy dog Leo the labradoodle gives Elina Santiago a kiss while she reads to him during Freeport Community Library’s Therapy Dog Story Hour.Leo is a 6-year-old labradoodle and registered therapy dog who has been participating in the library’s story hour since its inception in 2016.