Nicky is Belfast Free Library’s best asset to give beginning readers practice

The 147-pound Leonberger who lets kids read to her

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 9:30am

    BELFAST — Kids who are too shy to practice their reading skills in front of adults seem to have no trouble when Nicky is around. Nicky, a nine-year-old Leonberger, an enormous shaggy dog and owned by Marje Stickler, is Belfast Free Library’s newest sensation. On select Mondays, Stickler has taken Nicky in to the Abbott Room, where she settles down on her pad with patience while young kids and tweens read to her.

    Kids reading to dogs in libraries is a national library trend. In 2010, the University of California-Davis completed a study on reading to dog programs, which claimed that children who read to dogs improved their reading skills, after comparing their results on a comprehension test. In addition, children who read in front of dogs have an easier time because they’re not embarrassed when they make mistakes. 

    On February 25, Stickler arrived with Nicky for their second time at the library.

    “Leonbergers are working dogs and I had Nicky trained as to be therapy-certified,” explained Stickler, who raised Nicky from a puppy. “They’re called ‘Nana’ dogs because they love children.” (Nana refers to the nanny dog in Peter Pan.) “I’ve taken her to nursing homes and schools and the first time we tried the reading program was at the East Belfast School. The first graders would come down one or two at a time and read to her. Then, we started writing letters to the first graders in Nicky’s voice and the children really responded, writing her back with pictures they drew.” 

    The first time that Nicky was scheduled to come to the library on February 11, Stickler said, “There were three 11-year-old girls who were just ecstatic to read to Nicky.”

    On February 25, Nicky’s first reader was Dani Domenichelli, from Belfast. Dani is part of Girl Scout Troop 2050 and last year, their Take Action project was a presentation to Principal Whidmer about getting a therapy dog in to help readers at Captain Albert Stevens School in Belfast.

    This was, however, her first opportunity to actually read to a therapy dog. Dani grabbed a book on dogs and began to read, punctuating the “woofs” in the narration with such gusto, that Nicky responded to each bark with raised ears.

    “Dani receives extra reading support at school, but was enthusiastic about reading to Nicky the dog,” said her mother, Angela Domenichelli. “She was even willing to walk to the library in very cold temperatures on Monday to participate.”

    The next two days in March Nicky is scheduled to come back in are March 11 and 25 from 3:30 to 4:15 p.m. People are encouraged to set up a specific time with Erica Rubin Irish, the Youth Services Librarian if they would like one on one time with Nicky by calling 207-338-3884 ext. 24.

    “If the March sessions get filled, we’ll consider bringing Nicky back again after that,” said Irish.

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    Photos by Kay Stephens

    Kay Stephens can be reached at