Miss Cape May County Outstanding Teen 2012 Madison Kennelly hasn't always been the confident, upbeat and outspoken young woman she is today.

There was a time, back in middle school, when the 14-year-old Ocean City resident was withdrawn, unhappy and depressed, she said. A series of heartaches, including the loss of her grandfather and her longtime family dog, sent Madison into a spiral of depression and weight gain.

"I was so angry," she said. "I didn't understand why this was happening to me, and I didn't know how to deal with my emotions."

Things only became worse when kids at school began to bully her because of her weight gain.

"The more I got teased about it, the more I wanted to eat," Madison said.

So what turned a once-introverted preteen into a passionate and lively leader in her community, who works tirelessly to help children and adults alike to find their own happiness? A 21-pound Jack Russell terrier-pug mix named Peanut, Madison said, and "the hidden power of pet therapy.

Peanut helped her to uncover her true potential and find healthy ways to cope with her emotions, she said.

Kennelly's mother, Mary Jo, purchased Peanut with the hope of lifting her daughter's spirits. Mary Jo said she wasn't planning to buy a dog, but she somehow found herself inside a pet store playing with the puppy. After leaving, she could not get the dog out of her thoughts, she said.

"They say the dog picks you," Mary Jo said, " and I believe that to be true with Peanut."

The next day, she went back to the pet shop to get the dog.

When she took him home, Madison was thrilled. But it wasn't until later that the family would come to realize the tremendous role Peanut played in Madison's life.

"When I saw her, I was so happy," Madison said. "She was so gorgeous, and the best puppy in the world. I became more focused on my dog than issues at school, and before I knew it I had lost 30 pounds."

Madison chose pet therapy as her pageant platform. Realizing the effects Peanut had on her life and wanting to share the power of pet therapy with others, the Kennellys decided to enroll Peanut in an intensive 20-week pet-therapy program, where she became certified.

"I truly think Peanut understands what she does for her occupation," Mary Jo said. "She knows that she's bringing joy to others."

Madison agreed.

"She loves it," she said. "She has a therapy vest that says, 'Please Pet Me,' and every time I put it on her she's so happy. You can actually see her smiling."

Madison and Peanut work with a volunteer pet-therapy organization called Leashes of Love. Through the organization, the human-dog duo visit nearby nursing homes and rehabilitation centers to lift people's spirits.

"There was one time we were in a rehabilitation center visiting with a woman who was paralyzed on one side of her body", Madison said. "We put her hand on Peanut's head and for the first time since becoming paralyzed, she showed movement. It was a miracle. Her family was there, and they were all so happy."

They also participate in library reading programs where the children are encouraged to read books to the dog.

"The kids can relax and pet her head as they read to her," Madison said. "The nice thing about reading to Peanut is that she isn't judging you. She just sits there calmly and listens. Even the shyest, most insecure reader feels at ease with Peanut."

On Jan. 26, Madison will compete at the state level for the title of Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen 2013. She said that, for her, competing in pageants isn't about winning or losing. It's about the journey of getting there and promoting her platform.

"The community-service work, promoting the power of pet therapy, that's why I want to compete," she said.

Madison said her ultimate goal is to be crowed Miss America one day, and with that title to share the power of pet therapy with all of America.

"The more lives we can touch with this, the better," she said.

Contact Elisa Lala:

609-463-6713