By Kathryn Coulibaly
As the first bell of the day rings in Absecon’s public schools, therapy dogs Skye, 4, and Hope, 2, get to work.
Padding down the hall with a certified handler, one of the 14 staff members who have already undergone intense training, Skye heads to the library for the S.M.I.L.E. program, or Silent Mentors in Literacy Education. He will listen to small groups of first-grade students as they read aloud to him to boost their confidence. Meanwhile, Hope is on her way to sit in on a counseling session with students. After that, she’ll visit a self-contained classroom and listen to stories the students have written about her and her brother Skye’s exploits.
Since October, Skye and Hope, Greater Swiss mountain dogs who belong to Absecon Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dan Dooley, have been visiting the school twice a week to work with students. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the dogs have a packed schedule of activities, carefully coordinated by Alaina McCormick-Baner, administrative assistant to the superintendent. Their schedules are color-coded and broken up into 15-minute segments. The activity, name of the handler, number of students participating and assignment location are organized so that everyone is clear about what the dogs are doing.
This is Dr. Dooley’s—and the dogs—first year with the district, but they all previously worked in Commercial Twp., Cumberland County.
When he began researching the use of therapy dogs, Dr. Dooley did extensive research on which dogs would be the most effective for his purposes. Working dogs, such as Greater Swiss mountain dogs, were shown to be hard-working, patient, and adept at reading emotions.
We saw an immediate impact on the school environment. Students were more confident in the classroom, just by having them there. We saw an improvement in behavior issues. We knew that we were onto something positive.
Dr. Dooley also worked with FURever as Friends, a nonprofit based in Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties, that brings certified therapy dogs to schools, nursing homes, libraries and more. They also assist with therapy dog certification. Staff who are certified therapy dog handlers proudly wear blue FURever as Friends sweatshirts on days they work with dogs to help identify them.
“In Commercial Township, we built up to having the dogs in the school four or five days a week,” Dr. Dooley said. “We saw an immediate impact on the school environment. Students were more confident in the classroom, just by having them there. We saw an improvement in behavior issues. We knew that we were on to something positive.”
After joining Absecon School District, Dr. Dooley introduced the therapy dog program cautiously. He wanted to ensure that all of the stakeholders were part of the discussion and were supportive. In October, the Absecon Board of Education approved the program, and the dogs began visiting the two schools that make up the district: H.A. Marsh Elementary School and Emma C. Attales Middle School.
“We introduced the program in October with four certified staff members,” Dr. Dooley said. “By early December, ten more staff members were certified over two days at a training in Logan Township through the FURever as Friends organization. Having such widespread and enthusiastic staff support really enabled each of us to juggle our regular responsibilities, while ensuring that the dogs are being used in the most efficient and effective way.”
Jessica Torcicollo is the middle school guidance counselor at Absecon’s Emma C. Attales School. She saw firsthand the positive impact the dogs had on students’ emotional health in Commercial Township and was confident that Absecon’s students would benefit.
“I have seen a student with his head on the desk, having a meltdown,” Torcicollo said. “He wouldn’t respond to anyone. But after ten minutes with Skye, he had a smile and was ready to go back to class.”
She uses the dogs for one-on-one counseling, small group work, for meltdowns, and as an incentive for good behavior.
One concern was how Muslim students would respond. Some Muslims have a faith-based objection to interacting with dogs. Dr. Dooley made sure to communicate with parents about the dogs and to emphasize that no child would have any contact with the dogs without parental permission.
“We want to be very respectful of students and their comfort around the dogs,” Dr. Dooley said. “So far, more than 300 students have submitted parental approval to engage with the dogs.”
Middle school special education teacher Stephanie Swift believes the dogs also improve the relationships among staff and students.
“The children get a kick out of seeing administrators, teachers and staff engage with the dogs,” Swift said “They see us getting on the floor with the dogs and interacting with Hope and Skye, sometimes in silly ways. That helped us build a bond with our students, especially earlier in the school year.”
Swift also believes that the dogs pick up on “silent sufferers,” students who present as doing well, but who are really struggling internally.
“Dr. Dooley brought the dogs in during testing,” Swift recalled. “Students were trying to soothe themselves but the dogs really helped them get past their test-taking anxiety.”
Joe Giardina, the principal at Marsh Elementary School, has seen how the dogs help the students deal with anxiety. Absecon is the last mainland town before Atlantic City, and since the closing of several casinos launched the region into an economic crisis, some students have been struggling with changing economic situations and family dynamics.
“For a variety of reasons, we have observed more challenging behavior across the board,” Giardina said. “Hope and Skye are really helpful with addressing students’ behavior before it rises to a level that mandates greater intervention.”
It’s not just the students who benefit from the therapy dogs. Staff has been enthusiastic, as well.
Middle School Principal Kevin Burns, echoing President Harry Truman’s famous quote, joked, “After 20 years in education, I finally found a friend.”
Absecon Education Association President Robert Broomhead said the dogs have had a powerful impact on the entire school community.
“Dr. Dooley’s willingness to share his dogs speaks to trust and building a mutually respectful environment in the district,” Broomhead said.
Broomhead has seen the impact on his own family. His daughter is a student in Absecon Public Schools. At first, she was hesitant about the dogs, which are massive.
“She gets excited about when the dogs will be in the school now, and she’s talking more about her day.”
“Absecon is a family,” Dr. Dooley said. “And the dogs helped us facilitate the transition to a new administration. For other districts interested in implementing this program, I would recommend starting small and seeing how all the stakeholders respond. Make sure the board, community, and staff are supportive and start with a half-day or a couple of hours. Some organizations will bring a therapy dog into a school as a trial.”
Dr. Dooley and the other certified handlers are eager to share their success with the program, and welcome requests from other districts on how to implement similar therapy dog programs.
“We are working to demonstrate the validity of this program in a quantitative way,” Dooley said. “The staff team is collecting data on the number of students served and measurable ways we can assess the impact. We are excited about this program, but it’s something that you really have to see firsthand. Most, but not all students, really respond,” Dr. Dooley said.
Many board members and people in the community have asked to meet the dogs. Skye and Hope have visited a senior living community; the popular food festival, CRABsecon; and there are plans for them to attend a youth football game.
Hope and Skye aren’t the only animal superstars in Absecon. Third-grade class rabbits Mutters and Mr. Wiggles were recently certified as therapy animals. But their popularity predates their certification. In the past, the rabbits led the Halloween parade, in costume, of course, and have an impressive wardrobe that is primarily made by students.
From a financial perspective, the district is running the therapy dog program at zero to very low cost to taxpayers. The dogs are covered under Dr. Dooley’s homeowner’s policy for $4 million per dog, and each handler is covered at $4 million. Because they worked with FURever as Friends, the nonprofit carries an additional $1 million per dog, per handler.
The only costs to the district has been the training for the handlers, which was considered professional development by the district, and bookmarks, pencils, and coloring books of Hope and Skye that are used as incentives for the students.
According to Dr. Dooley, if another district hoped to replicate the program, the same budget and insurance protocols would apply, even if the owner of the dogs were not the superintendent of schools.
Dr. Dooley originated the program with Skye, who was donated by a breeder who really believed in the value of therapy dogs. The one caveat the breeder had: that Skye be shown professionally.
That led Dr. Dooley and Skye to a whole new arena: the world of professional show dogs. In 2017 and 2018, Skye was invited to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. He has had more than 30 “Best of Breed” wins and has placed as high as fourth in the country.
But the Absecon community doesn’t need anyone else to tell them their dogs are stars; they see it every Tuesday and Thursday. Skye has already done more than 270 visits to schools, nursing homes, mental health facilities, hospitals, at-home hospice, and colleges. Hope tails him with just over 100. In the coming year, Dr. Dooley and the team hope to bring the dogs into the school on a daily basis in order to meet more requests, and they are launching an Instagram account @skye_and_hope_gsmd.
“Our team, which includes administrators, child study team members, counselors, the school librarian, secretaries, and special education teachers, is really committed to enabling more students to engage with Skye and Hope,” Dr. Dooley said. “We know that working with these animals will have a lasting positive impact on their emotional and behavioral health, and is helping to inspire confidence and a love of learning.”
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org.