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Dogs that 'listen' to kids reading aloud bring joy, connection amid pandemic in Japan

A girl is seen reading a picture book to 8-year-old rough collie Merle in this photo taken in Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture, on Aug. 24, 2021. Merle is training to be a therapy dog that "listens" to people read. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

Merle, an 8-year-old rough collie with fluffy fur, lies next to a girl lying down on the floor with a book. She reads aloud: "I was just having a little chat with the moon."

    This was just one scene at an Aug. 24 training session by nonprofit organization Tochigi Animal Therapy Association in the Tochigi Prefecture city of Kanuma, north of Tokyo. Reading therapy dogs have been trained to sit or lie still, as if listening to someone reading aloud. Efforts to train dogs in this way began in the United States in 1999 as a way to help children who have a hard time speaking or reading to people face to face. The system was adopted in Japan in 2016 by Mitaka City Library in the western Tokyo suburb of Mitaka, and the practice has spread to multiple libraries around the country.

    In response to a request from Tochigi Library in the city of Tochigi, the Tochigi Animal Therapy Association chose from approximately 20 registered dogs belonging to volunteers to begin training. On the importance of reading therapy dogs during the coronavirus pandemic, Hirokazu Kurokawa, the library's 46-year-old head, said, "It's not a bad thing that, with the spread of the coronavirus, children's learning opportunities online have progressed.

    "But it worries me when they only interact with others through tablets and other devices, and their opportunities to communicate directly from play and seeing others outdoors are decreasing. I want to teach them the importance of non-online, real experiences, such as interacting with animals, and using our five senses."

    "Good evening, round moon." The girl closed the book, turned to Merle, and said, "Thank you for listening." Perhaps her voice was too soothing; Merle seemed to have dozed off a little.

    (Japanese original by Emi Naito, Photo Group)

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