It is common knowledge that dogs are illiterate, and their lack of opposable thumbs makes turning pages a strenuous ordeal. As such, with the exception of Millie’s Book (co-authored with First Lady Barbara Bush in 1992), men-of-letters who are also Man’s Best Friend have been disappointingly few.
Still, one local dog seeks to revolutionize the way the animal kingdom relates to the literary arts. Joker, a nine-year-old terrier, is the main attraction of the Read to a Dog program, which returns for another season at the Elmira Public Library. Every Wednesday this month from 4-5 p.m., local children age 6 to 8 are invited to develop their literary skills by reading aloud to Joker.
“He has had everything read to him, from Dr. Seuss to Geronimo Stilton,” said Holly Teahen, Joker’s owner and the program’s coordinator. “He’s had comic books read to him, he’s even had some of The Hunger Games read to him…”
But at age nine – well into adolescence for a Jack Russell terrier – doesn’t he find himself gravitating towards edgier fare? A Separate Peace, perhaps? Catcher in the Rye? Maybe a little Hunter S. Thompson?
“Well yeah, but we’d have to go upstairs to the adult library for that sort of thing.”
Mind you, Joker is a true renaissance dog, and his interests are not limited to pet-related topics. “Joker has a skateboard, so sometimes we’ll read stories about skateboards. He has done pilates, where he will demonstrate he has balance,” said Teahan.
He is even a “pet therapist” at Elmira’s Chateau Gardens nursing home. “He visits, he does tricks, he cuddles, he fetches, that sort of thing,” she explained.
Read to a Dog, which was founded by Teahan’s daughter when she was still a high school student, is entering its eighth year at Elmira Library. Over the years, its impact has grown beyond Elmira’s borders. Two other library systems, in Hanover and Hamilton, have started the Read to a Dog program after its success here.
But surely Joker is involved for loftier reasons than the glory of celebrity?
“Oh, he is very much in it for the glory,” Teahan admitted. “He loves the attention, and the children, when they read, he wants them to pet him: if they stop petting him he will kind of give them a nudge and remind them that they’re supposed to be petting him.”