SAN PABLO -- If there's anything 7-year-old Angie Zavala enjoys more than reading, it's dogs.
"We've had a German shepherd since she was a baby," said Angie's mother Claudia Zavala. "For Halloween, she's a dog."
Saturday, at the San Pablo Library, Angie had the best of both worlds. As part of the Waggin' Tales program, she read aloud to Dasher, a certified therapy dog, who lay with front paws crossed, ears perked, appearing to hang on every word.
San Pablo resident Carmen McNeil, currently pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology, helped bring Waggin' Tales to her hometown library in July 2011. She learned of the program, fittingly enough, by reading about it.
"The reason it works is the dogs give the kids unconditional regard," McNeil said. "The kids don't have to worry (about) being laughed at if they get a word wrong. The dog's going to keep loving them and keep licking them. So the kids are relaxed. Because they're not so stressed out, they persist longer. One dad told me that his daughter did not like to read when they started coming to Waggin' Tales. Now she practices at home so she'll be ready to read to the dogs."
One reason it works for 7-year-old Sasha Berkov-Kemp is that, because her father is allergic to dogs, her family can't have one.
"This has been a blessing in disguise," said Sasha's grandmother, Zamahara Berkov-Rojas. "She's absolutely in love with dogs. Her favorite game is playing like a dog."
"Every program has to partner with an organization that trains and certifies dogs," McNeil said. "We are partnering with the East Bay SPCA. These are not service dogs. They're called social therapy dogs."
Four canines were on hand for Saturday's event, a belated anniversary observation of Waggin' Tales' inception at the San Pablo Library. Approximately a half-dozen children were greeted by San Pablo Vice Mayor Leonard McNeil (Carmen McNeil's father). Then Maggie Howe of the East Bay SPCA read the book, "Buddy Unleashed."
Finally, the children were given a small stack of books -- including, of course, the P.D. Eastman classic "Go, Dog. Go!" -- and the reading began.
The program is the first of its kind in West County, but Carmen McNeil said it is offered in other Contra Costa libraries and is trending as a means to increase children's literacy rates. Berkov-Rojas, founder and director of the La Casita Bilingue Montessori School in Pinole, was impressed enough to consider adding something similar to her curriculum.
"As an educator, you're always trying to find out about new programs for your school," she said.
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.