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Olivia Figueroa, a 7-year-old with the Exceptional Family Member Program, reads a book to Muddy, a Labrador Retriever with Independent Therapy Dogs, Inc., at the Library aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Feb. 13. The Exceptional Family Member Program invited Independent Therapy Dogs, Inc., to come to the library so children with exceptional needs could read to the dogs without judgment.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher Johns

Tales for tails: exceptional family members read for exceptional pooches

19 Feb 2013 | Lance Cpl. Christopher Johns

Ever since her mother brought home the flyer a week before the event, Olivia Figueroa, a 7-year-old with the Exceptional Family Member Program, has been counting down the days and reminding her mother about the event every chance she got.
“This morning she was beside herself because this was the day she gets to come and read to the dogs,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Angelica Figueroa, Olivia’s mother and the depot ordnance officer with Headquarters and Service Battalion on Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. “To have an opportunity to do something like this despite all she’s gone through is just amazing. It makes me proud to be a part of the program.”
Little Olivia was born 13 weeks early, has chronic lung disease, liver disease and has been diagnosed with partial complex seizures making life a long, arduous journey for her, according to her mother.
Despite all the challenges she faces, Olivia refuses to let it get her down. She is polite, sweet and has a huge love for the written word.
“Her first passion is reading,” said her mother, a Douglas, Ariz., native. “She’s been doing it since she was four years old. Her other passion is dogs, so this event has just been perfect for her.”
Volunteers with Independent Therapy Dogs, Inc. brought dogs ranging in size to the library aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., for the ‘Ruff’ Readers program.
“We bring the dogs here for the kids to read to, because the kids need someone, or in this case, something, that will listen to them without correcting or reacting to them if they mess up a word or pronunciation,” said Mary Conklin, owner of a Corgi-Shiba Inu mix named Mai Tai and a Carlsbad, Calif., native. “Mai Tai likes curling up with the children and they love having her. (Mai Tai) is their size, so she doesn’t scare the kids, and she’s not too small so they can’t hurt her.”
The dogs interact with the children with wagging tails, and lolling tongues as the children read their books and share the pictures with the dogs.
“Reading to the dogs makes me feel happy,” said Olivia, a student in first grade at Miller Elementary School. “I like to read to them because they listen, and they give me kisses. I think they listen well to me. They’re pretty and I want to read to them a lot more, because I think (Muddy and Kira) like the pictures.”
While Olivia read to dogs of all shapes and sizes; her mother watched over her a few feet away with a smile on her face.
“Being a single mom is kind of hard,” said Figueroa. “Programs like this give (Olivia) something to look forward to instead of just following me around and doing chores. This is for her. She obviously enjoys it, and this is her big thing to do.”
A smiling mother, a reading daughter and one happy pooch like Mai Tai shows a program like Ruff Readers has helped at least one family have a brief reprieve from their day-to-day lives; allowing them to re-focus and come back stronger than ever.