NEW YORK — “Hi, Violet,” said the man in the orange “ASPCA Volunteer” shirt. He set up a little folding camp stool, fired up his iPad and began to read aloud in a gentle, even voice.
“The sun, coming in flat, knocks a prismatic oval out of the tumbler and lays it on the ceiling.”
Inside her glass kennel Monday afternoon, Violet, a black-and-white pit bull mix, lay on her bed with her head held low.
After a few more sentences, something shifted in Violet and she cocked her head toward the man, Ricky Gitt, for a few seconds: a brief moment of connection.
Through the doors of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on the Upper East Side pass hundreds of dogs rescued by the police in abuse cases. The society’s goal is to get them adopted, but many are so traumatized that they cannot handle human contact.
That’s where story time comes in.
For 20-minute stretches, volunteers read to dogs, who listen through “sniff holes” in the glass of their kennels.
“We need to get the dogs comfortable with what they’ll be seeing when they’re put up for adoption,” said Victoria Wells, the society’s senior manager of behavior and training. “People looking at them, people walking and handling them. This is the very first step in that process. It’s hands-off socialization.”
The reading material does not seem to matter much. Gitt, 58, an interior designer, happened to have started the Wallace Stegner novel “Crossing to Safety.” Other readers bring children’s books or magazines.
“As long as you read in a nice soothing voice, they enjoy it,” said Hildy Benick, 69, a volunteer who has been with the reading program since shortly after it started, in late 2013.
Wells got the idea for the program after years of playing guitar — mostly Beatles songs — to recovering dogs. “Not everyone knew how to do that, and I wanted to come up with something anyone could do,” she said.
The benefits of reading are hard to measure since the dogs also get a full range of training and behavioral therapy. But it makes a difference, Wells said.
“You know within each session the progress that they’re making,” she said. “In the beginning of the session, the dog might be in the back of their kennel cowering, and then they move forward, lie down, relax; their tail might wag.”
The society believes that its program might have been the first in the country in which dogs are read to as part of their recovery, though others have sprung up, and children learning to read have been reading aloud to therapy dogs — a nonjudgmental audience — for years.
Violet, who is about 2 years old, was found lying on a sidewalk in Queens Village in April, unable to stand.
“We thought she was dying,” said Lindsay Thorson, a veterinarian at the society’s Animal Recovery Center. Tests showed that Violet was physically healthy. “It turned out that she was frozen in fear and would not move,” Thorson said.
The society and the police do not know Violet’s backstory. Other dogs at the Animal Recovery Center had been starved, beaten, stabbed or shot. Most are good candidates for the reading program, said Kris Lindsay, manager of the recovery center. The police and the society would not give details of many of the dogs’ cases because they are subjects of open criminal investigations.
Around the corner, at the society’s Canine Annex for Recovery and Enrichment, where abuse victims are transferred when they don’t need as much medical care, Benick entertained another pit bull mix, Margarita, with an adaptation of the Garth Stein best-seller “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” which is narrated by a dog.
“He picked me out of a pile of puppies, a tangled, rolling mass of paws and ears and tails,” Benick read. Margarita, who was rescued in February by the Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad in a neglect case, approached the sniff hole and looked up adoringly at Benick.
As Benick noted, any old text will do. Later in the afternoon, she was reading news articles off her phone in the cheery, singsong tones of a kindergarten teacher to her old friend Dudley, yet another pit bull mix, who was found in the Bronx in December locked in a cage without food or water. After a knee operation, he is now available for adoption.
Another volunteer, Deborah Lancman, favors thrillers. “I read three Ian Fleming James Bond books to dogs,” said Lancman, a part-time administrative assistant. “They haven’t told me they minded.”
Monday’s selection was the John le Carré page-turner “The Night Manager.” Lancman quickly got down to business with Chickpea, an energetic pit bull mix whose medical condition requires her to be on strict cage rest.
“On a snow-swept January evening of 1991 …,” she read. Chickpea began to settle down.